This article was originally published in the May 2013 New Internationalist magazine…
When paediatrician Tamara Bugembe was first forwarded the email about ‘breast ironing’, she shuddered. But she didn’t take it seriously until a few years later, when she was working in Cameroon.
‘Breast ironing’, or ‘flattening’, aims to stem the growth of the breasts in the hope that it will help prevent unwanted male attention and delay a girl’s sexual activity. It is usually carried out by the mother or another member of the family, sometimes, even the girl herself. A heated tool, such as a pestle, is used.
Stemming development: Tools used for breast ironing are often those found around the house and then heated. This mother holds a stone and pestle.
The practice is common in Cameroon, although rarely talked about. Research by Cameroonian women’s organization RENATA and Germany’s Association for International Co-operation (GTZ) in 2006 found that 24 per cent of young girls and women in Cameroon had experienced it.
Similar procedures have been recorded in countries including Nigeria, Togo, Republic of Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and South Africa.
Margaret Nyuydzewira is co-founder of CAME Women and Girls’ Development Organization (CAWOGIDO), based in London. She believes the procedure is also being carried out in Britain. ‘I met a police officer who was telling me they arrested a woman in Birmingham who was doing breast ironing, and because nobody knew about it, they thought it was her culture and let her go. We cannot say it’s culture because it’s harm that is being done to a child,’ she explains.
A campaign to raise awareness about breast ironing has begun in the Netherlands.
The term ‘breast ironing’ is enough to make your toes curl, but for some mothers the alternative for their daughters seems much worse. The average age of rape victims in Cameroon is 15.
Tamara Bugembe has been working with Voluntary Services Overseas in Cameroon since September 2012. She has had two patients, aged 24 and 15, who came to her with swellings on the breast which turned out to be cysts.
It wasn’t until later that their mothers revealed they had previously ‘ironed’ their daughters’ breasts. ‘The girls were in boarding school and they were worried that the teachers would be using them to perform sexual favours, or that they would be raped. One mum was especially relieved – she’d clearly been beating herself over it thinking she had done something permanently harmful to her daughter.’
Georgette Taku, Programme Officer at RENATA, says it began the first campaign to raise awareness of breast ironing in 2006. ‘Before this, people did not know about the consequences; they just thought it was a means of helping the girl erase the signs of puberty and avoid the trap of early pregnancy,’ she says.
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.
‘We never had a name for it like “breast ironing”; we just knew it was a kind of tradition. I had a lot of friends who were from Europe and hadn’t had it done and my breasts were not the same. When we went swimming I was embarrassed.’
But Ben’s eldest daughter also had her breasts ‘ironed’ – by Ben’s mother-in-law. ‘I see it having the same effect on her; she also had a baby early. I believe strongly that it should be stopped.’
Breasts can be a focus of unwanted attention and personal shame, especially for early developers. Fifty per cent of women in the 2006 GIZ/RENATA study who had their breasts ironed had started developing breasts at nine years old.
One woman told RENATA: ‘My elder sister decided to massage them every evening with hot water and a towel. This was very painful and before I slept, she would fasten a very big elastic belt around my chest to help flatten the breasts. Six months later, my breasts were weak. At 10, my breasts were small and fallen like that of an old mother. Each time I undress I am ashamed.’
Chi Yvonne Leina is a 31-year-old Cameroonian journalist and activist who founded Gender Danger, an organization that campaigns against breast ironing. She was 14 when she saw her grandmother ‘ironing’ her cousin Aline’s breasts with a grinding stone as she peeped through a hole in the wall.
‘I got to understand why my beautiful cousin had changed completely: because grandma was “fixing” her!’ After that, Leina says, she lived in fear: ‘I thought maybe that’s what they do to everyone who has breasts.’
Sure enough, a few months later her grandma approached her, but Leina threatened to tell the neighbours and her mother. ‘Out of fear, grandma gave up. She anxiously watched me as I grew, expecting the worst to happen at any time.
‘I made up my mind that I will be the voice for those women who can’t talk for themselves in my community. That led to my choice of journalism and advocacy for women as a career.’
So far Gender Danger, which was set up in 2012, has talked to over 200,000 women about breast ironing and the importance of sex education for their children.
‘It’s when people start opening up and talking that you find out what’s going on,’ points out Nyuydzewira. ‘I went to Islington [London] to give a talk and this lady from Greece said, “Oh yeah, they do it in Greece, too”.’
Nyuydzewira, who is originally from Cameroon, compares attitudes towards breast ironing with those directed at female genital mutilation (FGM) in the past. We all know that FGM happens, she says, even though we may never have seen it taking place. ‘Organizations [working against FGM] are mobilized. [In Britain], the police are involved, the social services are involved.
‘Every time somebody asks, “How do you know that breast ironing is going on?”, I say, “I’m from the community.” You’ll never see it, but we know that it is quietly happening.’
The clandestine nature of the practice means that some people think it’s an experience they alone have suffered. Rebecca Tapscott conducted a study of breast ironing in Cameroon in 2012. ‘I spoke to a lot of people who said: “That’s completely ridiculous, nobody would do that”,’ she says. ‘I heard about a minister who found out about it and thought it was terrible; he then went home and found out that his wife did it to his daughter.’
There is currently no specific legislation against breast ironing in Cameroon. Georgette Taku thinks that passing a law and starting to make arrests would make people think twice: ‘It would raise eyebrows.’
But Tapscott is not convinced that the law would be enforced. ‘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.’
Taku says the biggest obstacle is getting on board everyone concerned with the rights of women and girls: ‘People who are supposed to be at the forefront, who are supposed to take up the fight, are staying quiet.’
But she thinks things are improving. ‘Some parents are opening up and trying to bring their children closer to them through sexual education rather than using methods like breast ironing; to help their children not become victims of one problem or the other.’
On 27 September 2013, CAWOGIDO is organizing a conference on breast ironing in London. To find out more go to the CAWOGIDO website.