Breast ironing, a traditional practice commonly done in Cameroon, is the use of hard or heated objects like a wooden pestle or scalding grinding stones to stop or slow the development of breasts in young girls, supposedly to “protect them from sexual harassment, rape and early pregnancy”.
Breast ironing is mostly practiced in parts of Cameroon, where the perception by boys and men is that if a girls breasts have begun to grow’, she is ready for sex. The most widely used implement for breast ironing is a wooden pestle normally used for pounding tubers. This is followed by leaves, bananas, coconut shells, grinding stones, ladles, spatulas, and hammers heated over coals.
Breast-ironing has been identified by the UN as one of five under-reported crimes relating to gender-based violence.
The practice cuts across socio-economic barriers, but rather than use barbaric tools such as stones and hammers, the rich opt to use an elastic belt to compress the developing breasts, thus preventing them from growing.
“Breast ironing is a well-kept secret between the young girl and her mother. Often the father remains completely unaware. The girl believes that what her mother is doing is for her own good and she keeps silent. This silence perpetuates the phenomenon and all of its consequences.”
Breast ironing is extremely painful and can cause tissue damage. Even though there have been no medical studies on its effects, medical experts warn it might contribute to breast cancer, cysts, depression, and perhaps interfere with breastfeeding later in life.
Other possible side-effects reported by the German development agency GIZ include breast infections, formation of abscesses, malformed breasts and the complete stunting of one or both breasts. Due to the range in the severity of the practice, from using heated leaves to press and massage the breasts, to using scalding grinding stones to crush the budding gland, health consequences vary from benign to acute.
Unfortunately, because of the highly clandestine nature of the practice and that it is perpetuated by women in their family settings, eradication would be difficult.
There is no known law against breast ironing, despite efforts by survivors and rights agencies to get the governments to ban the practice. Additionally, no one has been arrested or convicted in Cameroon for breast ironing despite the over 4 million victims.
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