How a song is aiding the fight against a harmful practice that affects four million girls in Cameroon.
"The best way to get youths’ attention is through music, through art, through song, through dance."
“Teach the girl child how to use her mind, not destroy her body.” This isn’t just an empowering message for girls; it’s also a lyric of a catchy song by Cameroonian artist Raminas King. The song is part of a campaign by Gender Danger to end breast ironing, a widespread practice in Cameroon where mothers iron their daughters’ breasts with hot stones and other kitchen utensils in an attempt to delay puberty and halt their daughters’ physical development.
"Stop Breast Ironing" by Raminas King. Click above to play.
According to statistics from the German Society for International Cooperation, one out of every four girls in Cameroon has been affected by breast ironing. Gender Danger founder Chi Yvonne Leina is hopeful that these numbers have actually been decreasing in recent years due to her organization’s efforts. Gender Danger’s community outreach has already resulted in over 20,000 women pledging to resist the practice. Leina, who herself stood up to her grandmother’s attempts to iron her breasts as a young girl, knows how powerful youth voices can be. World Pulse spoke with Leina to learn more about how Gender Danger is using music to empower girls in Cameroon and protect them from harm.
Can you begin by explaining breast ironing and why it is happening in Cameroon?
Mothers iron their daughters’ breasts to prevent the girls from early marriage, early pregnancy and rape. Unfortunately breast ironing is not a solution because it causes more problems than it can prevent. The process is very painful. Mothers use stones or tools heated over the fire to press, pound, and massage the breasts of these young girls. There are many dangerous physical and psychological side effects. Sadly, many girls who have endured this practice stop loving their own bodies.
Why did you decide to incorporate music into the campaign?
Breast ironing is a silent danger in Cameroon. If you are not a victim, you don’t know about it because it is not spoken about in public spaces. This song is an opportunity to change that.
This song is saying education yes, mutilation no. Give the African girl child her pride. The music entertains and at the same time informs and educates.
We use music in our campaign because we are targeting youth. And the best way to get youths’ attention is through music, through art, through song, through dance. If you listen to the song, it has components of African melody and rap.
It’s also a way of making the girls understand that they can speak out about the issue. This shouldn’t be a taboo topic. We want girls to be able to talk about breast ironing with their peers, to discuss solutions and how to avoid it. We are breaking the silence in a very loud way with music!
What do you hope a young girl in Cameroon will feel as she listens to this song?
If I am a 14-year-old girl listening to the song, first I am going to know that I am from an important component of society that someone could be singing about a young girl like me. And then, if I am a potential victim, I will know that anyone violating my body is wrong and needs to stop. And if I am already a victim of breast ironing, I won’t feel embarrassed to talk about it. I will work to stop it from happening to others.
What messages about girls are most common in Cameroonian music?
We have all kinds of songs describing the hips of women, but we hardly hear songs that uplift the image of women. Hearing this music, a girl grows up seeing herself as a sex object. She doesn’t view her body as something that is worth dignifying or preserving for her own benefit first, before thinking of the next person.
Youth always, always, always emulate what they see in the media. What do girls hear? That their bodies are sexual tools. It’s a messed up environment and we need to go back to the drawing board to realize where this problem is coming from.
In yesteryears we used to hear music that was didactic, but nowadays there is usually no positive message sent out to girls.
So even as you are working to end the harmful tradition of breast ironing, you are actually relying on positive cultural traditions?
Yes. In our communities we had many dirges for funerals that convey messages in our local languages. It has always been our tradition to use music to convey messages. But with the influx of different cultures and the global trend of youth trying to Americanize everything they do, most of the music now is just for excitement. It is not necessarily propagating a particular message.
We used to sing songs like Sweet Mother by Prince Nico Mbarga, which told us sweet things about the mother. That song was saying something positive. Nowadays we don’t get so many musicians coming up with these ideas. It costs us nothing to nurture a new generation of artists who produce music that elevates the image of the girl child and the woman.
Tradition can be positive. Through Gender Danger’s work in the Northwest region of Cameroon, we’ve been able to get to the core of tradition, the heart of tradition. We’ve now reached the matriarchs, the indigenous grandmothers of Cameroon, called the Takembeng: a powerful group of women who can stop any negative thing if they want to. Yesterday representatives of Gender Danger met with them and convinced these women to act to prevent tradition from being used as an excuse for violence against women.
What’s next for this movement?
Because of this song, Raminas King was invited to a popular television show in Cameroon. It will take more effort however to make the song infiltrate. In the near future, we want more young girls to be able to hear and grasp the message in the song. We are now also using writing to reach secondary school girls because we believe that we can tickle their imagination with creative writing and help to break them of those silent stories. Through our outreach we are turning victims into trainers. With all of these efforts, gradually we are going to get there. We will see a better Cameroon for young girls and a better Cameroon for women.
About Chi Yvonne Leina
Chi Yvonne Leina is a World Pulse Voices of Our Future Correspondent from Cameroon. She is also a journalist, community leader, and digital media change agent dedicated to shining a light on the unheard voices of ordinary women in Africa and transforming their fate.
After years of discrimination working as a woman in traditional print and broadcast media in Cameroon, Chi Yvonne Leina broke with the status quo and began to use her journalism experience to expose negative cultural practices, such as the inhumane treatment of widows and breast ironing. She went on to found the organization Gender Danger and she is currently collaborating with Cameroon's National Ministry of Gender to expand her campaign nationwide. Her vision has grown to include founding a media center to train women and young girls to use digital media and citizen journalism to educate and transform society.