Millions of Cameroon girls suffer “breast ironing”
By Tansa Musa
YAOUNDE, Cameroon (Reuters) – Worried that her daughters’
budding breasts would expose them to the risk of sexual
harassment and even rape, their mother Philomene Moungang
started ‘ironing’ the girls’ bosoms with a heated stone.
“I did it to my two girls when they were eight years old. I
would take the grinding stone, heat it in the fire and press it
hard on the breasts,” Moungang said.
“They cried and said it was painful. But I explained that
it was for their own good.”
“Breast ironing” — the use of hard or heated objects or
other substances to try to stunt breast growth in girls — is a
traditional practice in West Africa, experts say.
A new survey has revealed it is shockingly widespread in
Cameroon, where one in four teen-agers are subjected to the
traumatic process by relatives, often hoping to lessen their
“Breast ironing is an age-old practice in Cameroon, as well
as in many other countries in West and Central Africa,
including Chad, Togo, Benin, Guinea-Conakry, just to name a
few,” said Flavien Ndonko, an anthropologist and local
representative of German development agency GTZ, which
sponsored the survey.
“If society has been silent about it up to now it is
because, like other harmful practices done to women such as
female genital mutilation, it was thought to be good for the
girl,” said Ndonko.
“Even the victims themselves thought it was good for them.”
However, the practice has many side-effects, including
severe pain and abscesses, infections, breast cancer, and even
the complete disappearance of one or both breasts.
The survey of more than 5,000 girls and women aged between
10 and 82 from throughout Cameroon, published last month,
estimated that 4 million women in the central African country
have suffered the process.
“You ask me why I did it?” said Moungang. “When I was
growing up as a little girl my mother did it to me just as all
other women in the village did it to their girl children. So I
thought it was just good for me to do to my own children.”
COMMON IN TOWNS
The practice is now more common in urban areas than in
villages, because mothers fear their children could be more
exposed to sexual abuse in towns and try to suppress outward
signs of sexuality, the survey said.
Its findings have prompted a nationwide campaign to educate
mothers about its dangers and to try to eradicate it. A similar
campaign some years ago helped drastically to reduce rates of
female genital mutilation in Cameroon.
“A girl…has to be proud of her breasts because it is
natural. It is a gift from God. Allow the breasts to grow
naturally. Do not force them to disappear or appear,” said a
leaflet from the campaign.
Moungang said she stopped ironing her daughters’ breasts
after one girl developed blisters and abscesses.
“I took her to the hospital and the doctor scolded me and
advised never to do it again because it could ruin my
daughter,” she said.
“When Mariane married and delivered her first baby, it took
a long time — about a month — for her breasts to start
producing milk and the child almost died. I was told it was
because I had ironed her breasts. I was frightened.”
The younger a girl develops, the more likely she is to have
her bosom ironed — 38 percent of girls developing breasts
under the age of 11 had undergone the procedure.
The practice is most common in the Christian and animist
South of the country, rather than in the Muslim North and Far
North provinces, where only 10 percent of women are affected.
The survey found that in 58 percent of cases breast ironing
was carried out by mothers worried that the onset of puberty
could provoke sexual harassment, inhibit their daughters’
studies or even stunt their growth.
Many mothers were alarmed because an improvement in
nutrition and living conditions had caused young girls’ breasts
to develop earlier than ever.
“Massaging the breasts with hot objects is painful, very
painful, and can completely destroy the breasts,” said Bessem
Ebanga, executive secretary of women’s rights group RENATA,
herself a former victim.
“Some girls could be traumatized throughout their lives and
their sexual behavior could be disturbed forever.”
Thirteen-year-old Geraldine Mbafor could not hold back her
tears as she narrated her ordeal.
“I had just finished doing my homework when my mother
summoned me to the kitchen. She boiled water and in the water
she put a grinding stone. She then removed the stone holding it
with a thick cloth to protect her hands, and placed it my
breasts and started ironing them,” she stated.
“I felt so much pains that I started crying. After that she
bandaged my breasts with a band called breast-band … She did
this to me for 2-1/2 months.”
According to 14-year-old Amelia, who would not give her
family name, her breasts started developing when she was 9. Her
elder sister decided to massage them every evening with a towel
soaked in hot water.
“This was very painful, and every evening before I slept,
she would put a big elastic belt well fastened round my chest
to flatten my breasts.”
“Six months later the flesh that held my breasts was
already weak. At 10, I already had fallen breasts and each time
I undress I’m ashamed and it is a big complex.”
Nevertheless, support for and opposition to the tradition
remains evenly balanced. According to the survey, 39 percent of
women opposed it, while 41 percent expressed support and 26
percent were indifferent.
For Ndonko, the campaign is a battle to respect the
physical integrity of young girls — with broader implications
for human rights.
“If nothing was done today, tomorrow the very parents may
even resolve to slice off the nose, the mouth or any other part
of the girl which they think is making her attractive to men.”