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What is ‘breast ironing’ and why is no one talking about it?

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Courtesy of GTZ Cameroon

Heather Kennedy
WVoN co-editor 

Some parents go to great lengths to stop their children growing up too fast.

But unlike restricting access to the internet or imposing a ban on makeup and boyfriends, the practice of ‘breast ironing’ involves real, physical pain.

“Breast ironing is done in private and it is a secret between mother and daughter. When breasts grow early, people try by all means to make them disappear“ Margaret Nyuydzewira from CAME Women and Girls Development Agency explained.

Breast ironing is associated with Cameroon, but it’s also happening in the UK and other parts of Africa, says Nyuydzewira.

Which is why CAME have recently launched a campaign, funded by Trust for London, to tackle breast ironing in West London.

“Of course it’s happening in the UK” Nyuydzewira explained. ”But, like elsewhere, no one wants to talk about it”.

So what exactly is it? According to Wikipedia, breast ironing “is the pounding and massaging of a pubescent girl’s breasts using hard or heated objects, to try to make them stop developing or disappear”.

Aside from being incredibly painful, breast ironing can lead to a host of serious health problems including cancer, cysts and infections.

It is usually carried out by the girl’s mother to try to protect her from sexual harassment in parts of the world where boys and men think that girls whose breasts have begun to grow are ready for sex.

“My aunt and my mother pounded my chest every day when I was barely 10 years old. I cried endlessly” said Brenda Mahop, one woman reliving her experience of breast ironing.

For victims of breast ironing, it’s a traumatic experience that leaves them mutilated for life. Some never go on to develop breasts.

And yet the issue has been largely ignored by western mainstream media (with the notable exception of WVoN).

True, the Guardian earlier this year printed a piece titled Getting it off their chests: Women in Cameroon speak out against breast ironing. It was also reported on briefly in a digest called ‘News of the Weird’.

Anxieties and obsessions over the pubescent female body are rife in most societies. But the phenomenon of breast ironing paints a disturbing picture of a social order where a girl’s entrance into womanhood is profoundly dangerous.

Rape, forced marriage, poor sexual health; these are just some of the things that come from being a woman in a deeply patriarchal society. And mothers who know this only too keenly are resorting to desperate and brutal measures to preserve their daughter’s childhoods.

“As Africans, our girls experience worse violence than most. Mothers want to protect their daughters from sexual assault, the risk of HIV, early marriage, teenage pregnancy, early sexual activity.

“They are trying to protect them from male violence but in turn they’re hurting their children” Nyuydzewira explained.

In a recent survey, CAME and the health organisation GTZ Cameroon found that 41% of mothers asked said they agreed with breast ironing.

CAME are trying to re-educate communities around breast ironing whilst promoting health and women’s rights. Their campaign roots breast ironing firmly within a much broader tradition of violence against women and the social and economic disadvantages that fuel it.

Despite the work done by CAME, we remain in the dark about the full extent and impact of breast ironing.

”I’ve spoken to so many women who have been victims of breast ironing and have developed cancer, but we need more research to know more about the link” Nyuydzewira said.

CAME is also calling on the Government to make breast ironing an official crime under UK law, a move they hope will shatter the silence and raise awareness of the risks associated with it.

  1. Great article!

    Again this is a case of shifting blame.

    Men believe women are ready fro sex when there breasts grow so they can harass them. Obviously.

    The fact is not only are they not ready for sex but they should never be harassed and how is this combated? by educating men and making them accountable or making women take the blame and punishment for something that isn’t their fault?

    The latter is true of this and several other situations like rape being attributed to women’s clothing, or lack of. If we treat men like morons then that is how they will behave.

  2. Heather Kennedy says:

    Yes, it’s really telling that a mother’s reaction to unwanted sexual attention and attacks against her daughter isn’t to challenge men but to harm her daughter’s body. Aferall, this is one of the only things she has control over. Although mothers are complicit breast ironing is straight from the machinations of patriarchy.

  3. Susan Ewu says:

    Thank you Heather for this article. Yes it is true and it happening in hidding, like Female Genital Mutilation, nobody sees it happen, you only realised that it has happened. Breast ironing is a name coined in Cameroon, in my country Nigeria we call it suppressing the breast. The practice is done every where in the world where you have Africans, unfortunately so many people are still ignorant and many do not want to talk about it.
    I am supporting the campaign

  4. Heather Kennedy says:

    It’s very interesting to hear that’s happening in Nigeria under another name Susan. Currently, I’ve only really been able to find reference to happening in Cameroon.

    Making it illegal in the UK sends out an important message, but look at Female Genital Mutilation; illegal since the 80s and still not a single conviction brought. And like you say Susan, it’s the unwillingness to talk about these kind of things that help them continue in private.

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