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One in four Cameroonian girls is victim of breast ironing


Summary from Street News Service April 11, 2011

A shocking report has revealed that over a quarter of girls in Cameroon undergo the torturous experience of breast ironing ‘for their protection’.

Breast ironing is a traditional ritual in which, by using heated and flat objects, a girl’s growing breasts are pressed in order to suppress and reverse their development.

The act is usually performed by a girl’s mother or aunt.

To iron breasts they mostly use a wooden pestle or a stone, other tools employed include coconut shells, grinding stones, ladles, spatulas and hammers; all carefully heated over burning coals.

Although breast ironing is most widely practised in Cameroon, it also occurs in Guinea-Bissau, West and Central Africa, including Chad, Togo, Benin and Guinea-Conakry.

Doctor Tchana, Cameroonian gynaecologist and vice-president of the Cameroonian Association of Female Doctors, comes across both victims and perpetrators of the ritual in her clinic.

Often, mothers do not realise what they are doing to their daughters.

She recalls one woman coming in to the practice about a year ago, begging for forgiveness: “Forgive me doctor, I was not measuring the pain, but when I burnt myself I realised the type of suffering my little girl had to endure”, she cried.

The woman was ironing her daughter’s breast when she burnt her hand. That is why she had come to see the doctor.

Breast ironing is justified by Cameroonian women for many reasons. Apart from being historically rooted in their culture, it is used to avoid sexual contact between young girls and boys.

By preventing girls’ bodies from the sign of emerging sexuality, mothers try to make sure that their girls remain virginal and pure and avoid them becoming visibly fertile women – and potential mothers.

Apart from being painful and psychologically traumatic, breast ironing exposes girls to multiple health problems.

According to many medical reports, it can lead to abscesses, itching, inability to breastfeed the babies, infection, deformity or disappearance of the breasts, cysts, tissue damage and even breast cancer.

Unfortunately, breasts are not the only target for “ironing” in Cameroon. Belly ironing, also known as postpartum massaging, is another harmful traditional practice present in the country.

According to the women’s organisation Renata, it is even more widespread than breast ironing, being just as painful and also leaving women with horrible physical and psychological scars.

In belly ironing, a traditional broom steeped in boiling water is used to whip the belly of a woman who has just given birth.

Then, a towel is soaked in boiling water to massage the different parts of the body and in some regions, the woman is asked to sit on a bucket of hot water so the vapour penetrates her vagina and uterus.

Even this can cause burns, vaginal infections, cervix damage or scars. Cameroonian women accept it because the tradition says that it is very important to evacuate the remaining blood after delivering a baby.

For more information on breast ironing, see previous WVoN stories here and here.

Thanks to Suzannah Young for bringing this story to our attention.

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