Breast ironing: a terrible way to protect girls from sexual harassment in Cameroon

By Chiara Campanelli 

Infibulation, the surgical removal of female genitalia, is a type of female genital mutilation widely practiced in sub-Saharan Africa. This type of surgical ritual causes chronic pain, bleeding and infection. Several NGOs have cooperated to forbid it and make it widely known and discussed all around the world.

Despite of the work of NGOs, there is another practice which is almost unknown and not as widely discussed as infibulation – breast ironing.

Breast ironing is a ritual mutilation where the breasts of a pubescent girl are flattened to make them disappear or stop developing. It is typically carried out by girl’s mother or by older women who use hot irons, stones, coconut or even bananas and leaves for flatting the girl’s breasts.

Girls have been forced to wear strict bandages since childhood and then, where the breast starts to develop, even at the age of nine, their breasts are flattered in a ritual that can last weeks or even months.

This has terrible effect on health, as it can cause bleeding, infections, tissue damages and cysts, and the consequences continue to affect a woman’s life after she gives birth;  it becomes impossible to nurse her own children, leading to another form of stigmatisation in their society.

This kind of mutilation is principally practiced across the entire region of Cameroon, where 4 million women and the 38% of girls in pre- adolescent age have been exposed to breast flattening. Surprisingly, all ethnic groups are engaged in breast ironing with no distinction of religion and social status, but breast ironing is more common among Christian and animist group rather than Muslims.

What is surprising is that the diffusion of this mutilation is linked to the necessity of Cameroon mothers to make a girl “less attractive to men” and protect their girls from sexual harassment and unwanted pregnancies. A rape or unwanted pregnancy normally leads to a forced wedding, with the consequence that a girl has to left school, and the family name is tarnished. As a matter of fact, breast ironing is reported to be more practiced in urban areas where sexual harassment is more frequent.

But several NGO’s reported that breast ironing obviously has not stopped early pregnancies and forced weddings. In Cameroon and other Sub-Saharan countries, laws have been proposed against the practice of breast ironing, but none of them have passed.

The UN has declared breast ironing a “gender based crime”, but the awareness campaigns don’t seem to have worked. Eradicating a ritual means eradicating a tradition which has been practiced for centuries, and this is anything but simple.