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CAMEROON: Mama Hates My Sprouting Breasts

Breast ironing, a violent attempt to prevent the sexual development of adolescent girls, has scarred the bodies and psyches of millions of girls in Cameroon. Chi Yvonne Leina reports.

"Think of a woman whose vagina is mutilated at the age of 9, whose breasts were ironed at the age of 10..."

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© Photo Radio Nederland Wereldomroep

In the privacy of homes, behind closed kitchen and bedroom doors, pubescent girls in Cameroon are being tortured by their own mothers. Using objects like grinding stones, mortar pestles, coconut shells, or hammers heated over hot coal, mothers massage their daughters' developing breasts to destroy any indication of emerging womanhood. War has been waged against womankind. Genitals are mutilated; breasts flattened; bodies battered; hair cut off for rituals; minds deprived of education.

The breast, a feminine symbol and the pride of womanhood, has become a target. The urge to protect their daughters from rape and premarital pregnancy has pushed mothers in Cameroon to deform the breasts of their daughters.


After attending a digital storytelling workshop in South Africa, Voices of Our Future Correspondent Chi Yvonne Leina produced this video to further expose the realities of breast ironing in Cameroon.

When I met Lindsay, I noticed a deformity and suspected she must have “been there.” But like many victims of breast ironing, she didn’t want to talk about it. Most victims never report it, and many claim never to have heard about the practice.

I continued visiting her in her tailoring workshop, and I told her about my own fight with my grandma, which freed me from being a victim of breast ironing, and about my cousin who dropped out of school as a result of this practice. When I asked her about it again, she nodded with her eyes fixed on her toes, and she opened up to me about her experience at the age of 11.

When Lindsay got her first period, she was so frightened she took to her heels to tell her mama to take her to the health center. “I was so sure I had been wounded by a nail hanging out of the bench on which I sat in class that day,” she told me. “Mama pulled me to the bathroom and asked me to show her the wound. When I did, she asked me if any boy had ‘touched me’ and I said no. Holding her ear with her left hand and her waist with the right, she gave me a fierce warning, telling me if any man or boy touched me, from that day onwards, I would be pregnant, and that will be the end of my education and the family would disown me. She gave me water to bathe and later brought a huge chunk of toilet tissue for me to put in my pants.”

Lindsay continued: “The next day she called me into the kitchen and examined my chest while shaking her head. She asked me to lie down on the floor while she used a hot stone to press my breasts which had just begun sprouting. She instructed me never to tell anyone about what she was doing. The practice continued for over a year. Unfortunately for mama when I turned 12 my breasts defied her attempts to suppress their growth and developed, though the right one is visibly much smaller than the left and there are black marks all over the area from burns I incurred during the process.”

According to statistics from the United Nations Population Fund, one out of every four girls in Cameroon is a victim of breast ironing. That’s 3.8 million girls. The practice is most prevalent in the Christian and animist south of the country, where in some regions, half of the female population is subject to breast ironing. The damaging effects of this form of body mutilation by far outweigh any reasoning behind the practice. Fertilized by the culture of silence, breast ironing has made it right up to this age of scientific advancement. Many women have seen the benefits of educating their girl children. They are ready to do anything to prevent their daughters from teenage pregnancy and early marriage that would bring an end to their daughters' education. This mutilation has proven to be futile when it comes to deterring teenage sexual activity and many of the girls still end up disfigured with teenage pregnancies.

Breast ironing can be a source of excruciating pain and violates a young girl’s physical integrity. A 25-year-old victim says she feels embarrassed each time she is naked amongst her peers because her breast tissues are worn out like those of an old woman. “The thing is very much alive everywhere, yet no one talks about it because it is done behind closed doors and kept as a secret between mothers and daughters. Not even the fathers are usually aware of these acts," she says.

Another victim of breast ironing, now an English teacher, says she grew up with a feeling of guilt about the sprouting of her breasts which happened at the early age of 10. "Despite the ironing, pressing, and massaging with hot kitchen utensils, my breasts refused to flatten, making me an object of scorn amongst my mates whose chests were still flat” she says.

Medical experts say the developing tissues in the breasts are expanded and destroyed by heat during the ironing. Research by the United Nations Population Fund reveals that breast ironing exposes girls to numerous health problems such as abscesses, cysts, itching, and discharge of milk. There can be permanent damage to milk ducts, infection, and dissymmetry of the breasts, cancer, breast infections, severe fever, tissue damage, and even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts. Victims end up with marks, wrinkles, and black spots on their breasts.

One victim says she developed breast cancer as a result of the mutilation and ended up losing one of her breasts in a surgery. Her mother initially saw the cancer as a spell and resorted to more intense ironing sessions using a knife heated on a fire to press them.

Like female genital mutilation, breast ironing violates the fundamental rights of women and young girls—the right to health, physical integrity, and freedom from torture. Many mothers have preferred to destroy their daughters’ breasts than to face the embarrassment of talking about sex with the girls. As a result, the rate of premarital pregnancy is on the rise in Cameroon (making up 30% of pregnancies according to local health care workers) due to lack of sexual education.

Worried and otherwise well–intentioned mothers have intensified the war against teenage sex by ironing, massaging, and pounding their breast to flatten them. “So long as it will not kill the girl, I will prefer the breast to be deformed and have her go through her education without an unwanted pregnancy or the deadly HIV virus," states one of the mothers. Most of the mothers say their intent is not to inflict pain on their daughters but to protect them from the taboo of teenage pregnancy. Where the mothers cannot stand the sight of their daughters in pain, there are often local women who serve as professional breast flatteners who exchange their services for palm oil and wood. . . .

Comments

I think people, even though they had awareness and understood the importance of education in their lives, due to the societal constraints, their conservative minds were brainwashed to think an unlikely alternative to how to stop pre-marital pregnancies. They sought a very dangerous route and instead of awareness turning their lives better, they misinterpretated its agenda and failed themselves.
Its a very shocking eye opener to a world very peculiar to where I live cos the place where I live, this kind of story are next to what we can call a myth. And its shocking to know this story and realise that it has been happening for as many years as it has.
Thanx for sharing such an article for which I seem to have lost my speech. I found myself dumb struck and speechless when i read this article for the first time.
I wish all of those innocent victims for a better life ahead and i pray to god that she is looking after each one of them, giving them strength to move on with their lives and be brave.

best wishes
shristi Bajracharya

Leina's picture

Dear Shristi,

Dear Shristi,
Thank you for reading through this article and joining your voice.No matter how complicated it is,there is a solution.There is hope for these young girls so far as our minds refuse to be idle about their plight.
Thank you
Shekina

How can this even be happening. Those mothers and grandmothers that were victims of their own family's misinformed health issues are generations of women that have been abused for far too long. How absolutely painful this is to know what these children have been put through. Where is the self love or self awareness when that is being done to your own child?

I was abused as a child and silenced for too long. I have found my voice and am trying to make a difference in my life and others.

Silent no more this must stop. How horrible to know that this is happening, or that it has happened at all.

My Soul is Screaming for this to stop!

Education is the Key to helping with this problem. I will find a way to help.

I know that Braveheart Women's Community is raising money to build a school in the Congo. Looking to see how far it is from one town to another? ... in miles from Yaounde Cameroon to Brazzaville Congo is 612 miles or 984.71 Kilometers that is not far at all.

I make "Hands healing the Spirit Dolls" and "Jewelry" and will be raising money through the sales of my work. To raise awareness of this "Silencing of the Soul" that has been happening for far to long.

Being a woman should be celebrated every day!

We live on Mother Earth! We are all her children!

These are my sisters that have suffered for far too long, their pain and suffering that these little souls have felt for being born a girl child, is so very sad it hurts to my core!

I will help their voices rise up, and be heard so this can be stopped in its tracks!

To be a part of history like Hitler!

This is no different than the gas chambers that the Jewish people suffered from. This is not different that any of the wars that have been raged on the mother it must stop!

This must be addressed so that these precious little children are not harmed any longer. They are our future.

We must Rise Together to Help find a better way of Healing for our world.

Thank you Shekina you are a braveheart woman and sister in my eyes.
Lisa Anna Bull

"Don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold / your own myth...." -- Rumi

"Illuminating the Light of Peace..." --LAMB

Leina's picture

Dear Lisa, I

Dear Lisa,
I am very grateful for your encouraging words and your quest to help.It touches my heart to find poeple like you with a heart for humanity.These little girls did not commit any crime to be inflicted with such pain by their own mothers.They need our help and thank you for thinking about them.I will gladly collaborate with you any time you are ready.
Thank you
Shekina

sadia's picture

a very new thing i've heard of

I am student of gender studies and i hadn't heard of it. it is like an imginary story. Thank you so much for sharing this article it is an eye opener... It will indeed help me to understand women issues in different parts of yhe world. and i think you have contributed alot to expand my thinking...
I can only say that their only crime is to be a woman.

Grace Awino's picture

As its said,people suffer

As its said,people suffer because of lack of knowledge.
In this case,l feel there is some form of oppression and fears that drives them not to embrace the natural development of their girls or rather womanhood.
l still can't bring myself to imagine the amount of mental tourture experienced by this girls,l mean,the changes in their bodies,and secondly,those changes are not accepted by their society.
But,am glad this has seen the light of the day,and from here something good can be done,i.e counselling,social education,women empowerment strategies e.t.c
l will be happy to hear that its all in the past ...

Leina's picture

Hi Grace,

Hi Grace,
With our voices strong on this platform,change is surely on its way.
Thanks for joining your voice
Shekina

musasababe's picture

Its Atrocious

I believe womanhood is a gift! These people need serious educative interventions to realise there are so many ways to curb premarital pregnancies! Why is it that in most African cultures the most the men will get is a lecture to be careful yet women have to be physically marred for them not to exploit their own sexuality??? This hurts!

Leina's picture

Hello, It hurts indeed to

Hello, It hurts indeed to know that out of ignorance mothers are inflicting pain on their beloved children.What they need is education and something must be done ASAP to safe these young girls from a culture that has women as prime targets.I am thankful you joined you voice.
Cheers
Shekina

ArtByMia's picture

my heart cries

Hello,

This is the very reason why i LOVE WORLD PULSE and the women in it. I never knew of this horrible situation and crime against women. Thank you for posting and bringing awareness to it. If we can educate these villages, countries, groups and institutions then maybe there will be less of these types of crimes to women. It pains to think that these young innocent girls are going thru such torture for being a girl, growing and developing into a woman. If nothing is done it will go on from generation to generation for centuries as so many other cultural traditions have. This happens to be one of the many traditions that are extremely harmful to women in the short term and long term of their growth.

I would love to share your story one day on my blog that is for women only. you can take a look at www.chamacaarts.blogspot.com

Thanks you and have a blessed day, Mia

Leina's picture

Dear Mia, I am

Dear Mia,
I am glad you read and liked this.I will be glad to have you share the story so that many kind hearts who will be willing to ignite change can read and act!Destinies and lives are being swept away by inexplicable acts like these and we can`t just keep quiet and watch this happen.Thank you for joining me sis.
Shekina

ArtByMia's picture

Power to the Sisterhood

Thank you Shekina,

What a blessing to have come across your article and profile. I am happy to have met you and look forward to sharing with one another again. I am thankful for your gracious contribution to my blog with this story. I will prepare it and post in the coming weeks. Stay in touch and i will keep you posted when i publish.

Have a blessed day, Mia

Leina's picture

Dear Mia, We

Dear Mia,
We are in touch.Our goal is to tell the untold and usher in the needed wind of change.
A splendid weekend in God`s care
Shekina

ArtByMia's picture

Hello my Dear brave

Hello my Dear brave woman!!!

I will be adding your story to the website www.chamaca-arts.com and thank you again for sharing your vboice and wisdom with us. I would love to speak with you about a story i have in mind that you can help with in educating women around the world on other cultures and bringing awareness to the way girls and women are treated. What do you say would you like to hear more and join me?

Have a blessed day, Mia

Leina's picture

Dear Mia,

Dear Mia,
Of course I will like to join you and hear more.It is always a joy for me to do that anytime.
Blessings!

usha kc's picture

Dear Shekhina,, Thank you

Dear Shekhina,, Thank you for sharing this issue dear. I reallly could not stop my tear when reading.. my god!! what a crual practice!!!!!!I never had heard this . Due to many reasons we women,girls have been tolorating such a scary pains!!! in the name of religion,in the name of social belief and so on,, we always become victim.
Education, awareness can play the important role. But first we can raise the voice against as you did here so bravely,,,, you did very great job dear.

keep it up!!

Leina's picture

Dear Usha,

Dear Usha,
Thank you immensely for joining youre voice.Indeed education and creating awareness can make a difference.Together as we rub our minds I see a brighter tomorrow for these young girls.Thank you so much for encouraging dear.
Gratitude
Shekina

Mrs_sanutshering's picture

hey,

i'm proud of you n glad you.i read and liked this and thank you so much for sharing this issue..i really feel so so sad....never had heard this.....

Sanu from Nepal

http://www.girleffect.org/

Please watch this and be inspired to take action on such an unjust cause.

Thank you for this eye-opening story.

Leina's picture

Thanks imensely for joining

Thanks imensely for joining this course that strives to put a smile on the faces of young women.
Blessings
Shekina

Aurore's picture

Horrible !

I'm totally stunned..this is so horrible. And I'm sure mothers doing that suffer also from not being able to help their daughters in an other way...

Deepti's picture

Unfortunate truth

Hello Shekina,

It is so unfortunate that even the mothers can overlook the excrutiating pain of their daughters in order to prevent them from the things that they fear to happen in the future. Very unfortunate truth to accept! I would not have believe this had it not been published in Worldpulse. I hear these stories only to come closer to Africa. I so pray for the victims of breast ironing.

Best wishes,
Deepti

karaN's picture

Unacceptable

Thank you so much for sharing this story. As a young woman, I am appalled by the truths you are sharing. This definitely needs to be made more aware because these acts are completely despicable. With more global awareness of this issue I hope that these acts can be stopped. I am astonished and find it hard to truly wrap my mind around how a mother can do that to one's child. I hope that through World Pulse and other organizations we can continue to give women a voice in order to stop these terrible acts. My thoughts and prayers are with the victims.

Best,
karaN

Fardosa Muse's picture

Killing cultures

it is very sad for women to go through all this pain.

Every One, Every Day ,Every Way, Prevent Vi0lenCE AgainST W0men On YouR Way!

Monika Pant's picture

I had never heard of this

I had never heard of this before. God give these girls power to resist their own mothers.

Oh, my Shekina, thank you for your willingness to bring this horrible situation to our awareness. I will mention it on my web site at my next update.

As some of those who have responded to you have mentioned - this is so incredibly sad on so many levels. For the poor young women themselves, at the very time when their bodies are changing and they need the caring support for becoming the beautiful, strong women they can become, they are victimized by their own mothers. Their scars will be deep on their body, and in their soul.

And for the mothers, whose motivation may be to protect her child from what they perceive as a greater threat, we have to wonder what scars they, too, will carry. Clearly, they do not feel strong enough to listen to their own deep wisdom and to stand up to this devastating but acceptable practice that damages their own daughters.

And to you - our THANKS for your own strength and courage and caring. Your willingness to increase your skills and step into your personal power as a leader is making our world a better world for all. One of the most powerful ways we can create a future that is good for all, is through telling the stories of women and girls - stories of their suffering, and stories of their powerful impact for good.

I recently read about women in shanty towns in Brazil who are working to bring peace in some of the poorest areas where violence, shooting and drug gangs are the norm. You may want to read about it: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=47529 As you say, we must seek solidarity of women around the globe visioning and working to create a world where women are safe and able to contribute their many gifts!

Barbara
www.womenleadingtheway.com
Faculty, Antioch University Seattle

nkinyanjui's picture

What a shocking story to

What a shocking story to read, my goodness! I think i am speechless. This is tragic and sad, i pray that one day it comes to an end.

Hoseah's picture

Unfortunate Revelation

Thanks to the girl who revealed the story. We all need to stand to safe the disadvataged ones through enlightment. Im sure with the story now in the public, a solution will be realized

Hoseah, Eldoret Kenya

Amei's picture

Dear Shekina, I am just SHOCKED!

Heard for the 1st time and I am still trying to understand the motives for such unfathomable action my mothers in the name to protect their daughters.

Vigorous education and voicing of these silenced cultures are the only hope to stop such violence.

I am so thankful that you mustered the courage to bring this sad and horrendous practice to openness. This great effort must have filled you with much emotion I cannot even begin to grasp.

I salute your work. I hope, pray and wish this practice stops now.

With gratitude
Amei

Nipo's picture

Some thoughts and confusions!!

I can remember the day when I got period and how my mom was happy for it, on the other hand how she used to force me to wear scarf. Still I feel the pain of having a long scarf while going to school.
After reading this post my pain is now gone because another huge pain replaced it. Is it a curse to be girl? Of course is not girl’s fault that she is becoming a woman.

When people in one part of the world go to massage center to get an appealing look, some girls are being ironed just because of a natural growth.

Dear shekina,

Thanks a lot for your post. You are a courage to many. Keep writing and wish you a good luck.

Regards
Nipo

Nipo

lembelamupeta's picture

have known about genital

have known about genital mutilation, but breast ironig is completely new. how does a mother bring herself to doing that to a poor young girl?

Hin Kunthea's picture

Eliminate this brutal action

We never have such practice in our histories ( Cambodia). we really sorry to Cameroon women and girl.

Kunthea
From Cambodia

polite switness's picture

End this barbarian acts

It is with a heavy and tear filled eye that i read this.HOW CAN WE BE OWN ENEMY?????What those girls are going through is unimaginable.In Kenya there are communities like the kisii, kurias,Pokots,Marakwets amongst other tribes who have their girls go through female genital mutilation where there are rituals performed and an old woman with crude unsterilized blades cut off the girl's clitoris to reduce their libidos during puberty.The Somalis go an extra mile of sewing up the girls virginas so as to prevent them from engaging in pre marital sex! Am proud i come from a community that teaches us to have self pride and hold ourselves with high self esteem although we are expected to be submissive to our men and that a woman's place is in the kitchen,she is only there to be seen not be heard.My community does not believe that a woman can inherit her husband's property and that she is the property of the community after her husband's death.These trends are fast changing with more women knowing their rights and the constitution also having clauses that support the empowerment of women and their right to own property.But again all this is on paper,on the practical field it isn't.

VERA ATIENO
Voices of Women In Western Kenya

sreymom's picture

I never heard of this kind of

I never heard of this kind of story happens in my country. I feel so sorry for these girls. I pray that one day this action will be stopped.
We all have right to live in healthy environment.

Eh Tha Khu's picture

so sorry

I'm really afraid after I have been read that it so terrible bad. It's the new news for me. I have to share in my community about this. Because it is really terrible. So sorry for hearing that bad news. Thanks for sharing this news too.

faridaY's picture

Education

Thank you for sharing this story Shekhina. The irony of the mothers doingthis to ensure that their daughters don't miss out on their education is heartbreaking. I think as teh issue continues to be highlighted it will be possible to reach these women; and as Barbara says they are desperate enough to ignore tehir own innate wisodm and love as mothers so I have to believe that with increased awareness and highlighting of the pain their daughters endure, these mothers will change their ways.

Matilda Moyo's picture

Sad indeed!

Dear Shekinah,

This is the first time I'm learning of breast-ironing and I must say I am both shocked and saddened by it. Clearly, this is an issue that has been under-reported for a very long time, so thanks for the expose.

Community education sounds like one of the solutions for the mothers who no doubt mean well but don't realise the impact of sacrificing their daughters' well-being. It will probably be a long time before community education bears fruits but hey, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

I'm wondering how many people have taken the time to write a petition concerning this? Perhaps an online petition where people just add their names would receive more support. I would certainly append my signature to that. Also, you would be able to track the support received and be in a position to state how many people support the cause. Just a thought given the importance of the cause.

Regards

Matilda

Harpreet's picture

Speechless

These girls are just like us....how mother's can do this with thr daughters .....i will pray, god help them...

CHINYERE MMA OKOH's picture

EXCUSES

YES, MOTHERS SHOULD BE CONCERNED ABOUT THE WELLBEING OF THEIR CHILDREN BUT THIS IS NO EXCUSE TO INPACT PAIN ON ANOTHER.
BASELESS TRADITIONS AND BELIEFS ONLY EXIST IN THE ABSENCE OF SOLUTIONS..
BUT WHERE THERE IS LIFE, THERE IS HOPE.
DON'T FORGET THAT

irishblueileen's picture

Let's look at the real culprit

If I am understanding this correctly, it is to protect their daughters from rape, teenage pregnancy, and early marriage. It is to avoid talking about sex to their daughters. It is to have their daughters to become educated, and avoid the oppression in which the mothers and grandmothers find themselves. So, where does the shame talking about sex arise? Is it from Christian or Muslim religious guilt? Is it not the oppression that needs to be stopped so that the fear has no basis? I have not heard of this practice before. What extent will women go to protect their daughters from a fate worse than death? This may be the greatest extent that I have seen.

Eileen M. Jackson PhD, RN, MSN

www.careislikewater.blogspot.com

News From A Broad's picture

Horrified

Sexual assault to prevent sexual assault...REALLY? This is not a new practice and these are not new avenues for women protecting women. We have to look at how we, as women, support and even sponsor mens' hatred of us. I may be called to the carpet for this opinion, but the fate worse than death isn't rape; rather, a life long hatred of your own form, mutilated or otherwise, is a living death - take anorexia for example. Don't be too harsh in your response. I am aware that these are decisions based on a cultural platform.

Benné Rockett

This is really heartbreaking article. In many developing countries girls are abused one way or another.This is lack of awareness ,those mothers prefer such kind of protection for their doughetrs than rape. They should take a lesson.

womenofindia's picture

This is unbelievable

I never heard of such thing earlier, its a shocking fact... The people who are raping are moving around like free birds and these poor gals have to suffer because of them.

This article really helped to know such things are happening in world. Hey gals nobody will be able to rescue until and unless you all object.. proper education is lacking. May God give courage to all gals in the place to protest against this practice.

Absolutely inconceivable!! It's not just violation of fundamental rights of women...it violates human rights. How can a mother do it for her child? What kind of cruel practice it is to prevent premarital pregnancy and educate their daughters? My heart goes out for the victims, my dear sisters, may God bless you with immense strength. Thank you Shekhina for gathering your courage to tell us the story. Before the education of daughters, there should be a drive to educate their mothers and teach them that things like premarital pregnancy cant be prevented by such barbaric act of mutilation rather by inculcating a sense of right and wrong in their daughters heart and mind, by incorporating value-added education in their society. May God enable us all to stand up against the cruel act and help such societies erase these heinous socio-cultural practices.
Regards
Nusrat

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved. ..........Hellen Keller

Hi,

I fail to understand why some people want to continue propagating meaningless cultures that bring only pain to the victims. My heart goes out to those girls.
It's absurd that while in one part of the world mothers will do everything to forestall puberty and sex among girls, in Kenya, some mothers condone underage sex and even build special huts for their pre-pubescent girls to have sex in with older male relatives. This culture has seen many girls die procuring crude abortions performed by their mothers to get rid of pregnancies that come as a result of this unholy liaisons. It is a really sad world we live in.

We must unite and fight for the right to live a dignified life.

Regards

Wanja

EWG

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