Breast Ironing

In Cameroon, the breast, one of the most conspicuous signs of a woman’s femininity, is a target for ritual mutilation. Breast ironing, a practice that involves flattening a young girl’s breasts with highly-heated stones, pestles, spatulas or coconut shells among other objects, is typically carried out by an older female relative.

According to Friends of the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA), one out of every four girls in Cameroon has been affected by breast ironing, equating to nearly 4 million young women. Breast ironing is primarily practiced in the Christian and Animist south of Cameroon, and less frequently in the Muslim north, where only 10 percent of women are affected. It is also practiced in Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Togo, Benin, and Guinea among African countries.

As a 14-year-old girl, Chi Yvonne Leina, now 32, became a witness to this custom, which is practiced by all 200 ethnic tribes in Cameroon. She often went to her grandmother’s hut after school, which is located in the Northwest region of Cameroon, and usually heard the sounds of her cousins playing.

But one particular day, the hut was eerily quiet.

“[W]hen I approached the hut I heard my cousin crying inside,” Leina told theGrio. “I was curious, so I peeped through a small crack in the door.”

What Leina saw next would change her life forever. “I heard my cousin groaning and I saw my grandmother warming a small grinding stone. [G]randma was using that small stone, which she warmed on the fire, to press my cousin’s breast, and was pressing hard on the breast, and she was crying.”

That was Leina ’s first encounter with breast ironing. Although this practice can result in physical damage in addition to retarding developing breasts, many elders condone it. Mothers or close relatives of young girls who perform the practice believe breast ironing will deter sexual predators.

Those who carry out breast ironing hope to minimize young girls’ sexual activity, so they get an education and become financially independent. Teen pregnancy out of wedlock is on the rise in the region. Such a life event curtails any hope a young woman has of pursuing a lucrative career.

In its 2011 human rights report on Cameroon, the U.S. State Department explained the cultural motivation for stunting breast growth among adolescent girls. “The procedure was considered a way to delay a girl’s physical development, thus limiting the risk of sexual assault and teenage pregnancy,” the report states. “Girls as young as nine were subjected to the practice, which resulted in burns, deformities, and psychological problems.”

Yet, there is strong evidence that breast ironing does not achieve the desired goals. “Statistics confirm that in addition to being a human rights violation, the practice is ineffective in deterring pre-marital pregnancy,” according to a Friends of the UNPFA press release. “One-third of unwanted pregnancies occur between the ages of 13 and 25, with more than half falling pregnant after their first sexual encounter.”

For many women, including Leina’s cousin, the negative effects can be deep, long-lasting, and counterproductive to personal growth.

“All I know is she became suddenly a shy person, which she wasn’t before,” Leina said. “And she fell out of school and got pregnant some years after.”

(Continue Reading @ The Grio…)

  • KayKay

    I feel like if maiming their attacker is what they need to do then that’s what they should do. They should keep a knife or some kind of weapon with them at all times, use the buddy system every where they go, ANYTHING besides harming themselves. I just don’t see the sense in hurting themselves when they should be hurting the men that cause them to take such extreme precautions in the first place.

  • omfg

    @downsouth transplant

    i read that before posting my comment and came away my above response. every girl is always at risk. every girl everywhere. girls are always the potential victim of a predator.

    but unfortunately, the first assault she experiences is from her mothers and aunts? because, this is a form of assault, despite its incredibly misguided intentions. it’s sickening.

  • SCBeauty (@scbeauty77)

    This is sad. I’m glad to be born a female in the U.S.

  • Chelley5483

    “but unfortunately, the first assault she experiences is from her mothers and aunts? because, this is a form of assault, despite its incredibly misguided intentions.”

    omfg I could NOT agree with you more. This “practice” is causing lifelong deformities and post-trauma! I would never intentionally make my children deformed for no religious/ protective reasons. How they came out the womb is how God intended. Flattened breasts, cut off clitoris in other tribes and/or regions… Really? Not an ounce of anesthesia in sight? One word, ABUSE.

    As another commenter put it, shall we not just, in the name of religion, educate our boys as to how not to go apeshit crazy over a pair of breasts or the female form in general?

    I hate how “it’s just their nature” for men to ogle and aggressively pursue every sexually attractive woman,” but it’s not a woman’s nature to have beautiful, womanly physical features and her body remain respected by men in her community.

    Do better.

  • au napptural

    Disagree. Yes, this is shocking and I’m 100% against FGM and any other type of multilation. But I hate when people point the finger at the Global South to make themselves feel better (I don’t like to say 3rd world, it’s inaccurate). The high rape rate in the US na dthe rest of the western world, the Reblicans fight to strip women of reproductive rights, the “right” of phramacists to not sell you birth control b/c of their religious beliefs, the abysmal and disproportionately high rates of deaths in childbirth for AA women in the US, and the high infant mortality rate for AA women are nothing to brag on. We surely need to sweep around our own front step. But even more important, we need to see all these issues are part and parcel of the same thing. A girl’s breasts are iron around the world, a girl in the US is blamed for her rape by an acquaintance- it’s all due to a system that seeks to control and punish the sexuality of all women.

More in Activism, the grio