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What is ironing of young girls' breast and why it happens in Cameroon

According to the medical experts, the effects of ironing breasts can be severe that can also lead to breast cancer in future.

What is ironing of young girls' breast and why it happens in Cameroon
Apart from physical problems, women who went through breast ironing undergo severe psychological problems. Image Credit: YouTube / George Parisos

The way female genital mutilation has received a lot of attention, uproar and global condemnation against it, many people even have not heard of another repugnant practice named breast ironing in Africa. Perpetrators consider it a traditional practice to restrict unwanted male attention over women's breasts.

What exactly is breast ironing?

Also known as breast flattening, breast ironing is a practice of pounding and massaging the breasts of pubescent girls with the use of heated hard objects. Apart from using the heated objects (mainly stones, spatulas, pestles or hammers heated over burning coals or cooking gas), mothers or grandmothers also wrap bandages tightly around their daughters' chests and check every day whether the girls are neglecting the practice. It usually starts with the onset of puberty or when the parents feel that their girls' breasts have started developing gradually.

Why is breast ironing carried out?

The practice of breast ironing aims to slow or stop the process of girls' breast development. Unlike female genital mutilation which requires experts, this practice is carried out even by the senior women members of girls' families who give the reason of protecting the children from sexual harassment and rape. According to them, the naturally protruding breast can lead the girl getting involved in sexual activities that can lead to teenage pregnancy, which would tarnish the family name. The people of the communities, where this practice is prevalent, believe that "many boys and girls have an idea that growth in breasts is an indication that the girl is ready to have sex." Thus, the mothers, grandmothers, and aunties believe that, through the process of breast ironing, they will be able to suppress the girls' natural development of her breasts and she will remain protected.

Breast ironing in Cameroon and elsewhere in Africa

In Africa, breast ironing is practiced mainly in all ten regions of Cameroon. Apart from this country, it is also reported across Central and West African countries like Benin, Togo, Guinea-Bissau, Republic of Guinea, Ivory Coast, and Chad. It is also practiced at small scales in Zimbabwe and South Africa. As this is still one of the most common practices in Cameroon, the country currently has at least a quarter of girls or women who have had their breasts ironed. The practice is also permeating in the United Kingdom through the African immigrants and dozens of cases in London, Leeds, Essex, and Wolverhampton have been reported.

As female genital mutilation stands out as one of the most horrific forms of injustice done to young girls in Africa and some parts of the planet, the numbers of victims are out by several researchers. But due to the practice of breast ironing inside the doors like day-to-day activity, it is very hard to get the current numbers of victims in Cameroon and other parts of Africa. Still, the statistics say that this dangerous injustice has made victims of half of the Cameroonian girls who develop under the age of 9, and 38 percent of those under the age of 11. Even in many cases, it is observed that breast ironing is regularly practiced so secretly that even fathers remain completely unaware as the girls are being strictly asked to keep silent.

Does breast ironing achieve its objective?

A previous report released by UNICEF revealed that the motives behind the practice are obviously ineffective as flattened breasts have not been able to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancies and rape incidents. The report further revealed that around 38 percent of children in Cameroon are married by 18, over a quarter of adolescent girls are mothers, and 20 percent of them have dropped out of school after getting pregnant.

Severe impacts of breast ironing

This practice in Africa is prevalent for a long time, but there were no medical studies on its effects before 2006. Breast ironing is not only painful, but it can also cause severe damage to the body tissues. According to medical experts, the effects of ironing breasts can be severe that can also lead to breast cancer in the future. The immediate side-effects can be noted by the orthodox perpetrators such as breast infection, the formation of pimples and abscesses, malformed breasts and the eradication of one or both breasts. Based on the intensity of heat and product, health consequences vary from benign to acute. In the future, apart from breast cancer, the victims are observed undergoing severe problem in breastfeeding the new-borns. Lactation cannot take place and this becomes a threat to the new-borns.

Apart from physical problems, women who went through breast ironing undergo severe psychological problems. Many women suffer from insensitivity in their breasts which also affect their sexual life with their husbands. Many victims feel as if it is punishment and often internalize blame and fear breastfeeding in the future resulting in social exclusion. Some victims have shared that they believe they do not have the rights to have breasts.

What needs to be done

Some groups have petitioned Cameroonian parliamentarians to criminalize the practice. Still, there is no law known against breast ironing. No one has been arrested or convicted in Cameroon for breast ironing despite over four million victims. However, since the process of ironing breasts is quite simple, it is very hard to prevent the practice by bringing any law against it or even criminalizing the practice. Instead, a massive awareness among the people is required and the governments must help the human rights agencies in creating campaigns and effort to bring a sustainable and positive change in society.

Through major campaigns, people, mainly elderly women, and young girls need to be convinced that breast ironing cannot prohibit the likelihood of early pregnancy, which is another social issue due to the absence of sex education, the unpopularity of contraceptives, the illegality of abortion and an unequal power relationship between males and females. The governments should propagate the severe impacts of this brutal practice through various mediums like television, newspapers, radio, internet, etc. The NGOs working for social benefits need to pick up this issue and accordingly organize events, programs or campaigns and convince the audience with all its disadvantages.

Need is to make communities realize that every woman has the inborn right to have breast and experience womanhood. The people somehow need to understand breast ironing is harming girls, their future, and their future progenies in the name of cultural practice.

  • Devdiscourse News Desk



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