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Breast ironing is a widespread cultural practice in some parts of Cameroon. It is also practiced in countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Togo, Benin, and Guinea. Breast ironing is the massaging and pounding of young girls’ breasts at puberty with hot objects such as traditional sticks, pestles and bananas. The object is to stop the breasts from growing so as to limit or stop sexual advances from men. Most young girls report that the effects of ironing are painful and cause a lot of psychological stress. Young men in rural areas may refuse to marry women who have experienced breast ironing. Victims are left with marks, wrinkles and black spots on their breasts.
Today, many NGOs are raising awareness on the effects of breast ironing. The Association of Aunties which works for the emancipation of single mothers and the Center for Human Rights and Peace Advocacy in Bamenda, Cameroon say that breast ironing is a social injustice and punishable under the Cameroon law. But those who carry out this cultural practice say they do not intend to inflict pain on their victims.
Breast ironing may not be practiced in your listening area. However, there may be other practices, including traditional practices, which have a negative impact on women’s and girl’s health. You might want to interview girls and women who have experienced these practices, as well as those who are involved with or defend the practices. A phone-in programme after the interview is one way to help raise awareness of these issues in your community. It would also be good to interview medical practitioners, traditional practitioners and legal people, and to talk about educational actions which can be taken to reduce this practice.
Good day and welcome to our program.
Good day. Today we are going to talk about a cultural practice called “breast ironing,” which is widely practiced in Cameroon.
That’s right. We know that some cultural practices involve violence against women. As rural areas become more integrated with urban centres, many of these practices are now being highlighted. A group called the Association of Aunties works for the empowerment of single mothers in Cameroon. Recently, they stated their opinion that, although breast ironing is a widespread cultural practice in the country, it leaves young girls with psychological stress and physical pain.
First, let’s explain what breast ironing is. Breast ironing is the massaging and pounding of the developing breasts of young girls to prevent them from growing. Many elderly women in the villages see breast ironing as the best way to prevent their daughters from prostitution and early marriages. These women argue that breasts which develop quickly are a sign of juvenile delinquency and must be checked. Hot objects like sticks, warmed bananas and pestles are used.
One in four girls in Cameroon has experienced breast ironing. It is practiced in all 10 province of Cameroon, and is most prevalent in the Littoral province, where a survey found that more than half of girls had undergone the practice. More than half of the cases of breast ironing were performed by mothers. Most of the victims are left with physical pain and emotional stress. They are also left with black spots and wrinkles on their breasts. In many communities, there are women who are experienced at breast ironing and are paid to carry out the act. The payment is often wood and palm oil.
A girl by the name of Manka Sirri from the Bafut area of northwest Cameroon has bad memories of breast ironing. The experience left her with marks on her breast. She later developed breast cancer. She remembers the flattening of her breast with a hot steel kitchen knife. The operation left her in great pain. Her frustrations were intensified when she later lost a breast through surgery to remove the cancer. Manka remembers that her mother later mistook the growing cancer in her breast for an evil spell which could only be eliminated through more ironing.
The Association of Aunties has said that any act which is against social justice, whether it is a cultural practice or not, should be against Cameroon law.
Changing this cultural norm will take time and education. In the parts of Cameroon where breast ironing is practiced, those who defend it as a cultural practice say they have no intention of inflicting pain and psychological stress on the girls. But resistance by girls to breast ironing is often seen as rebellion against established village rules. As a result, most of these young innocent girls suffer in silence.
According to Dr. Nick Ngwayam, a surgeon at the St. Louis Clinic in Bamenda in northwest Cameroon, very often the developing tissues in the breast are expanded and destroyed by the heat applied in breast ironing.
Girls who have had their breasts ironed have other problems too. A male student admits that he wouldn’t marry a girl whose breasts have been ironed. To other men, women with ironed breasts do not have an attractive shape.
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The victims of breast ironing experience psychological stigma on a daily basis. More work is needed to break the silence in the rural areas on this cultural taboo. It’s a reminder that those who are working to free women have to act fast to change this situation.
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Thank you for listening to our program today. Good-bye.
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Contributed by: Aaron Kah, Abakwa FM, Bamenda, Cameroon.
Reviewed by: Caroline Kilo Bara, Programme Associate/Communications, United Nations Population Fund, Cameroon.
- United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), undated. Breast Ironing.
- Plus News, June 28, 2006. Campaign launch to counter ‘breast ironing’.
- Women Living Under Muslim Laws, 2007. Cameroon: ‘Breast Ironing’ of young girls: a harmful custom.
WLUML, October 20, 2007. Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Africa & Middle East Coordination Office, Groupe de Recherche sur les et les Lois au Senegal (GREFELS), PO Box 5330, Dakar Fann, Dakar, Senegal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH, 2007.
‘Aunties’ for sexual and reproductive health: How unwed young mothers become advocates, teachers and counsellors in Cameroon.
Deutsche Gesellschaft fur Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) GmbH,
Dag-Hammerskjold-Weg 1-5, 65760, Eschborn / Germany,
Tel: +49 (0) 61 96 79 – 0 . Fax: +49 (0) 61 96 79 – 1115.