Confronting Cameroon’s Hush-Hush Tradition of Breast “Ironing”

BY Cristen Conger / POSTED June 28, 2013
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According to a 2006 study, 24 percent of women in Cameroon have undergone breast "ironing." (© Ann Johansson/Corbis) According to a 2006 study, 24 percent of women in Cameroon have undergone breast “ironing.” (© Ann Johansson/Corbis)

Before 2006, there wasn’t a widely accepted term for the West African tradition of forcibly flattening young girls’ budding breasts in the hopes of averting sexual advances and teen pregnancies. That year, the German non-governmental organization Association for International Cooperation (GTZ) made public the tradition of breast “ironing” common in parts of Cameroon, as well as as other African nations, including Nigeria, Togo, Republic of Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and South Africa. According to GTZ’s initial findings, 24 percent of

girls and women in Cameroon had experienced breast ironing, though it’s more prevalent in certain regions compared to others.

In May 2012, Rebecca Tapscott with the Feinstein International Center published the most comprehensive field study to date on breast ironing, in which mothers or female family members literally attempt to take girls’ sexuality into their own hands by trying to keep their figures as childlike as possible for as long as possible by stunting breast growth. She outlined the various methods used to suppress breast development:

Tools used for breast flattening include a grinding stone, a wooden pestle, a spatula or broom, a belt to tie or bind the breasts flat, leafs thought to have special medicinal or healing qualities,napkins, plantain peels, stones, fruit pits, coconut shells, salt, ice, and others. Typically, the object is heated in the ashes of a wood fire in the kitchen and then applied in a pressing, pounding, or massaging motion. The heat, style of application, and duration vary by individual and by region. While some women report a single treatment of heated leafs placed ceremonially on the breasts, others describe a heated grinding stone used twice a day for weeks or months to crush the knot of the budding breast.

There have been no long-term studies on forcible breast flattening, but interviews and limited medical reports reveal that repercussions of breast ironing can be both physical and mental. In 2011, CNN reported that the U.S. State Department cited breast ironing in its 2010 human rights report on Cameroon, noting that the tradition “victimized numerous girls in the country” and sometimes “results in burns, deformities, and psychological problems.” Anecdotal evidence also makes clear that the intended outcomes of breast ironing — mitigating young women’s sexual appeal and, consequently, preventing teen pregnancies — aren’t happening. Amy Hall in New Internationalist magazine reported in May 2013:

This was not the case for Ben, who is now 48 years old but underwent breast ironing in Cameroon when she was 13. Her mother used a spatula, normally used for cooking. She feels that the experience pushed her into having a child early, at 18, because of her lack of confidence. She now has seven children. ‘It has affected every area of my life,’ she says.
Based on her fieldwork, Tapscott also thinks that breast ironing may have become more common in recent years in a desperate, though twisted, effort to help young girls pursue education rather than getting pregnant and married in their early teens. But since discussing sexuality and contraption is taboo in Cameroon — a nation that has historically embraced polygyny and economic bridal arrangements (“bridewealth“) — the tradition of breast ironing has been handed down quietly often from mothers to daughters as a way to beat the odds of becoming one of the 46 percent of women in the country who has a baby by their 18th birthday.

Outlawing breast ironing might arrest people’s attention, but it wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem, experts warn. Tapscott told New Internationalist: “You could make the argument that that sort of legislation is useful because it sends out a message when the state comes out on something, but I wonder if that is as far as it goes. It’s really taboo [in Cameroon] to talk to children about sex and responsible relationships, which I think leads to this dramatic response.”

As a result, local and international charities have launched awareness campaigns to steer young girls and women away from breast ironing in Cameroon as well as in areas outside of Africa with large Cameroon immigrant populations. Though many mothers do it in an effort to help rather than harm, it’s a fruitless, not to mention violent and mutilating, practice that turns girls into victims of their own sexual maturation. Instead, empowering men and women alike to understand sexuality, contraception and consent is the only way to truly improve Cameroon girls’ lives in the long run.

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