Breast Ironing

Before this breast band, my mother used the grinding stone—heated in the fire—to massage my chest. Every night my mother examines my chest (and) massages me, sometimes with the pestle," Matia adds. "Although I cry hard because of the pain, she tells me: 'Endure, my daughter; you are young and there is no point in having breasts at your age'. [1]

Josaine Matia, 11 years old
Yaounde, Cameroon

What is Breast Ironing?

Breast ironing is a traditional practice that involves massaging or pressing the breasts of adolescent girls in order to suppress and reverse their development. The rationale is to prevent girls from developing breasts in the belief that a flat, child-like chest will discourage unwanted male attention, rape and pre-marital pregnancy.[2]

Breast ironing is a well-kept secret between the young girl and her mother. Often the father remains completely unaware. The girl believes that what her mother is doing is for her own good and keeps silent. This silence perpetuates the practice and all of its consequences.[3] Breast ‘ironing’ involves massaging the growing breasts of young girls in order to make them disappear, usually by using a stone, a hammer or a spatula that has been heated over coals.[4]

Proponents say they do this to discourage male interference in young girls, to prevent girls themselves from pursuing men, to discourage girls from engaging in sexual intercourse at a very young age and to reduce the risk of pregnancy. Because the topic of sex is taboo, young girls remain ignorant of how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. Young people make up most of the 5.5 per cent of the population living with HIV, and teenage pregnancy is a growing concern—thus increasing reliance on breast ironing to deter sexual activity.[5]

Proponents also argue that discouraging male attention will ensure that the girl’s studies will not be interrupted.[6]

Prevalence

  • Breast ironing appears to be most widely-practiced in Cameroon. It's more common in the Christian and animist south of the country than the Muslim north, where only 10 per cent of women are affected.[7]
  • It also occurs in Guinea-Bissau, West and Central Africa, including Chad, Togo, Benin, Guinea-Conakry.[8]
  • Some 24 per cent of girls in Cameroon, about one girl in four, undergo breast ironing. [9]
  • Breast ironing occurs extensively in the 10 provinces throughout Cameroon.[10]
  • A sample survey published in January 2006 of 5000 girls and women aged between 10 and 82 in Cameroon, estimates that 4 million women had suffered the process.[11]
  • Today, 3.8 million teenagers are threatened with the practice. [12]
  • Up to 53 per cent of women and girls interviewed in the coastal Littoral province in the southeast, where the country's main port, Douala, is situated, admit to having had their breasts 'ironed'.
  • More than half (58 per cent) of cases breast ironing were undertaken by mothers. Other relatives also participate.[13]

Health and Socio-Economic Implications

  • Breast ironing is terribly painful and violates a young girl’s physical integrity.
  • Breast ironing exposes girls to numerous health problems such as abscesses, itching, discharge of milk, infection, dissymmetry of the breasts, cysts, breast infections, severe fever, tissue damage and even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts.
  • This painful form of mutilation could not only have negative health consequences for the girls, but often proves futile when it comes to deterring teenage sexual activity.

Response

  • The Network of Aunties Association, RENATA, made up of members who have undergone the practice are drawing public attention to the psychological trauma and other ensuing health risks in order to protect young girls from this form of bodily mutilation.
  • RENATA has produced radio and television spots, and several radio and television journalists have joined in spreading information about breast ironing. Leaflets and calendars outlining the types of objects used in breast ironing, the extent of the practice and its consequences have also been produced.

Recommendations

  • Governments in affected countries should raise public awareness of the dangers of breast ironing and why it needs to be stopped. [14] Awareness raising should also include frank discussions of sexuality. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for many parents to talk to their children about sex owing to modesty or for cultural reasons. Some expert theorize that parents prefer instead, to rid their children of the bodily signs of puberty in order to avoid potentially embarrassing discussions. The onset of adolescence, however, is exactly the right time to start such dialogues
  • Prosecution of perpetrators [15]


[1]IPSTetchiada, Sylvestre. IGHTS-CAMEROON: An Unwelcome "Gift of God"

[2]Kinoti, Kathambi. 8.11.2006. www.awid.org/go.php. “Breast Ironing: Breaking the Silence.” Interview with Bessem Bissong.

[3]Kinoti, Kathambi. 8.11.2006. www.awid.org/go.php. “Breast Ironing: Breaking the Silence.” Interview with Bessem Bissong.

[4]Sylvia Spring/IRIN

[5]Sylvia Spring/IRIN, According to Bessem Arrey Ebanga Bisong, executive secretary of RENATA.

[6]Kinoti, Kathambi. 8.11.2006. www.awid.org/go.php. “Breast Ironing: Breaking the Silence.” Interview with Bessem Bissong.

[7]Reuters 7.12.2006. http://www.alertnet.org/thefacts/reliefresources/115270667798.htm

[8]Flavien Ndonko, anthropologist for GTZ. According to the German Agency for Technical Co-operation (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit, GTZ), an international body owned by the German government January 2006 Investigative Study, www.smh.com.au/news/wolrd/breast-ironing-grim-secret-of africas-women/2006/07/05/1151779013634.html.

[9]IPSTetchiada, Sylvestre. IGHTS-CAMEROON: An Unwelcome "Gift of God". Flavien Ndonko, a doctor who works for GTZ, told IPS.

[10]IPSTetchiada, Sylvestre. IGHTS-CAMEROON: An Unwelcome "Gift of God"

[11]GTZ study 2006.

[12]According to the German Agency for Technical Co-operation (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit, GTZ), an international body owned by the German government January 2006 Investigative Study, IPSTetchiada, Sylvestre. IGHTS-CAMEROON: An Unwelcome "Gift of God"; Sylvia Spring/IRIN

[13]Reuters 7.6.2006. Tansa Musa. “Breast Ironing: Grim Secret of Africa’s Women.” January 2006 GTZ Survey

[14]Kinoti, Kathambi. 8.11.2006. www.awid.org/go.php. “Breast Ironing: Breaking the Silence.” Interview with Bessem Bissong.

[15]Feminist Daily News Wire. 8.3.2006. Cameroonians Fight Breast Ironing.