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…)

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  • KayKay

    Whose raising the men in the communities where these atrocities are done? Do they just take a “boys will be boys” approach and aren’t teaching them rape, incest, sexual harrassment, etc.. are not okay? Are the good men speaking up or staying silent? I agree with the commenter who called them a bunch of idiots.

    • dee

      I feel like that thought (boys will be boys) is everywhere though.

      whenever I hear stories about rape, no matter where it is, it’s always on the woman to prevent rape.

      How does a woman prevent rape anyways? aside from maiming their attacker.

    • 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.

  • I remember reading about this many years back. Some cultures, to us use archaic methods such as this and female mutilation on the young girls in an effort to “protect” them, yet pain & disfigure them instead of shaming and arresting the rapists out there they are trying to keep them from. It seems as if anytime there is improvement in any 3rd World country for women, there are multiple steps backwards in another area. In some areas of sub-Saharan Africa, girls have to drop out of school when they start their period. As much as we complain about the current state of this country, its nothing compared to these poor girls being mutilated. I definately will read up on how I can contribute to helping them.

  • Kay

    I heard of this practice years ago, when I met a young lady who came from one of the areas where this was prevalent. She luckily escaped the fate of her cousins and some of her other half-siblings as her mother was determined not to iron out her breasts. She told me it was painful process that often disfigures young women for life. It shames them, makes them fearful of having something that is natural. When I asked her why such a thing was done, she shrugged and told me that unfortunately, rape had become such a reality for women and young girls that many thought that disfiguring their daughters would keep men from doing such a thing. Though it comes from a place of vigilance, it only serves to place the onus of responsibility from the rapist to the potential victims.

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

  • 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.