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…”
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.
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.
A recent nationwide campaign by the Network of Aunties Association, (RENATA), a nongovernmental organization led by breast ironing victims, involved radio and TV spots which discouraged women from inflicting breast ironing on their daughters. Much still needs to be done to kill the culture of silence; for so long as there is silence, no one can ever tell the full extent of harm done to little girls in the secrecy of homes. According to gender consultant Dr. Awa Magdalene these practices rob girls of the self confidence they need to assert themselves in society later on in life. A dual enemy to women’s emancipation, breast ironing not only inflicts pain, but prevents women from accepting their bodies as normal human beings.
These pubescent girls are children and ought to benefit from children’s rights. Cameroon signed the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which was put in place in September 1990. According to Article 19 of the convention,”States parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social, and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse while in the care of parents(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.”
As stated by the terms of this convention, which Cameroon ratified in 1993, the government has a legal responsibility to protect these girls from the injury and abuse of breast ironing.
The perpetrators of this act are not in hiding. They can be found at any time, but nothing is ever done to them. Technically, victims of breast ironing are protected under national laws as well if it is medically proven that the breast has been damaged and if the case is reported within a few months of the damage. Unfortunately, no girl has ever been bold enough to report her mother to a court of law.
Blessing Nabila, a final year law student of the University of Yaoundé, says she finds no use of reporting such a matter to the court because matters concerning women’s rights are often handled with nonchalance in Cameroonian courts, except for a few cases handled by some female lawyers who are devoted to the cause.
The Preamble of the Constitution of the Republic of Cameroon states, “human beings, without distinction of race, religion, belief, possess inalienable and sacred rights,” and Article 1(2) calls for equality of all citizens before the law. However, women and girls have unequal status in all spheres of life, and discriminatory administrative policies, practices, laws, cultural beliefs, and attitudes continue to curb women’s enjoyment of human rights.
The more educated and exposed a woman is, the less likely she is to be convinced that such a brutal act as breast ironing can actually be a solution to the problem of teenage sex. Educated women understand the need for sex education and will rather counsel their girl children about their sexuality rather than mutilate their bodies.
Unfortunately, girls’ education is yet to hit acceptable standards in the country. Ironically, breast ironing, which many mothers believe will help ensure their daughters’ education, has accounted for a good number of school dropouts amongst teenage girls. The psychological trauma that accompanies the act usually makes it difficult for the girls to concentrate in school.
“I felt like an outcast amongst other girls,” confesses Aline, a victim of breast ironing. “I knew many of my friends whose mothers did not press their breasts; it made me feel sad, I spent my whole days in class thinking about what grandma will do to me after school and so could not study. I ended up failing my exams and was dismissed for extremely poor academic performance.”
At the 2000 United Nations Millennium summit, countries worldwide agreed to focus development plans on eight goals. One of the goals is to eradicate gender disparities at all levels of education by 2015 .This is a big challenge for sub-Saharan African countries like Cameroon. Though there has been remarkable progress at the primary level of education, the secondary level still presents a veritable challenge.
According to a 2003 UN report, the female-to-male ratio in school enrollment stands at about 0.80 at the secondary level and 0.45 at the tertiary level. This challenge is fueled by breast ironing, in regions where the practice is prevalent, and by early marriages in other regions. Some families in Cameroon prefer to spend their resources on educating male children while keeping the girls at home for domestic chores. Educating the girl child will help eradicate barbaric acts like breast ironing in Cameroon. If young girls are encouraged to break the silence and expose the secret, it will be difficult for this culture to thrive.
Think of a woman whose vagina is mutilated at the age of 9, whose breasts were ironed at the age of 10, and who dropped out of school at the age of 12 due to psychological trauma from these practices, who was then forced into marriage at the age of 15, became a mother of six by age 23, was widowed at 30, and was forced to undergo dehumanizing widowhood rituals. This woman will go through life regretting that she was born a woman, and will never rejoice at the birth of a female in her family again.
Any community which refuses to release its women from the bonds of noxious cultural practices bars the way to development. The writing on the wall is clear; nations which have taken the forefront in women’s emancipation are today enjoying the bliss of feminine initiatives. It is time for Cameroon to join these nations.
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