The silence has been broken. What used to be done in the dark has been brought to light. Breast Ironing is loosing its potency as a silent killer. Women and girls are beginning to talk about it in churches, cultural women groups and schools. Gender danger has embarked on an extensive advocacy mission to end breast ironing in Cameroon. The incidence of Breast ironing in Cameroon is more than I ever imagined. It has left me to think that 1 out every 2 Cameroonian girl has experienced breast ironing. The campaign kicked off in the North West Region of the country about six months ago. For over two months now as we move from one group to another, almost everybody identifies with the practice. Even pupils in Primary School identify with it. Our first stop was at Christian Women Fellowship (CWF) Ntamulung, Bamenda; A women’s association within the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon. At the mention of breast ironing, every woman knew what it was all about. Some confessed that they have been victims and also perpetrators. Interestingly, women did not know that this practice was harmful. To them, they are merely keeping their daughters out of the eyes of sex predators. Not knowing that it is even better for this children to be sexually attractive now, than sexually unresponsive in future. While at CWF Ntamulung, the medical personnel in our team disclosed the health risks of breast ironing, and behold, mothers wept at their ignorance. They could not imagine that what they see as mere help can adversely affect the lives of their daughters. Some women started telling their stories; • Some say since they ironed their daughters’ breasts years ago, it has refused to grow again • Some say that their daughters’ breast has grown extraordinarily big after the ironing • Some say that their daughters’ breasts have grown in an unimaginable way; one very big and one very small; one growing naturally and the other developing a hole in the middle; some growing in a shrinking manner. The revelations were enormous. I could not help but weep when these women continued to reveal what they have been doing to their daughters and what they have passed through as victims of this painful and traumatizing act. Our next stop was at CWF Musang - Bamenda. It is another women’s group of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon. At CWF Musang meeting, I cried more than anyone else. In the course of the lectures the women started dishing out the different methods they use in ironing their daughters’ breasts. • Use of grinding stone that they have heated on fire • The use of hot banana • The use of hot broken clay pot • The use of herbs • The use of hot cutlasses And then as one woman mentioned that there is a method where the girl is sent under the bed, and then a hot mortar pestle is used to pound the breast from outside the bed by the mother, this lady left her seat running in the front part of the hall shouting: “That is me ooo, that is me ooo, that is me when I was a girl ooo, that is what they did to me ooo.” She fell on the ground and cried the hell out of her. Her name is Beatrice. She then explained her story. She says when her breasts were ironed, it later reshoot and grew extraordinarily big. As her breasts were growing, she learnt to bend her back so as to cover up the big breasts that developed. She never stopped wearing big pullovers just to cover up the breasts. She said she became the center of attraction in her community and unfortunately for her she was nicknamed “Bea Bend Back.” Up till date, some people still call her “Bea bend back.” Mme. Bea revealed that, she has never been comfortable in her body, and this has affected her sexual life. She says she doesn’t respond to sex through breast fondling. To her, her breasts are not a part in the game of sex or foreplay. Mme. Beatrice says that it is the worse experience that she has lived to experience her whole life. As Beatrice was telling her story, every other person was in pain, some were crying. Beatrice herself felt a bit relieved in the end just for the mere fact that she has finally told her story. The next group we went to was CWF Ntaghem. Here the story was no different from the other groups. Women cried at the health risks involved in breast ironing. Some said they were victims and others said they were perpetrators. We then moved on to a traditional group, the Bali Women’s meeting. The women here reacted like the women of the other groups. One of our last stop so far was at a primary school in Bamenda. At Government Bilingual Primary School GMI Group 1, the children were amazing. More than 90% of the pupils revealed they know about the practice. One of the pupils explained how her breasts were ironed using a grinding stone. Many others said they have witnessed it being done either to their sisters, or to other girls in their community. Teachers testified as victims and as perpetrators. The pupils of this school were taught how to resist breast ironing. They were told to tell their mothers that they should not iron their breasts, no matter what. These children carried placards and sang songs denouncing breast ironing in the campus. They saw genuine reasons to stand against breast ironing. On my way home when I left the campus of the primary school, I decided to have a random interview with one lady I met on my way to the market (Food Market, Bamenda), where I stopped to pick a few things. Her name is Geneva Ikome. I asked her whether her breasts were ironed or whether she has ever ironed her daughter’s breasts. She laughed and told me she is a victim of breast ironing and a perpetrator too. I was curious, I asked her how many daughters she has and how many of them whose breast she has ironed. She continued laughing, and said she has no daughter. The most obvious question came to mind again “have you been ironing the breasts of other girls in your community?” I asked her. Paradoxically, she said no. I became even more confused. “Madam, how are you a victim and a perpetrator?” I asked her again. “I ironed my own breasts when I was in primary school,” she answered. Wao! I couldn’t stop but ask why she did that. She told me that when she was in primary school, they had a fellow pupil who had very big breasts. Boys in the school were always laughing at that girl and abusing her that “big bobby” (meaning big breasts) in school. So, as girls, she and her five friends went home to her mother’s kitchen one day, they took a grinding stone and heated on fire, and one after the other, the ironed their breasts. “Behold, our breasts disappeared,” she told me. Before I could engage in a discussion on the dangers of breast ironing, Geneva told me that she knows how damaging that practice is and she will not dare to do it on any of her girls. I was glad to hear that. Now, I travelled to visit my best friend. Together we are Masters Student of the Department of Women and Gender Studies in the University of Buea Cameroon. When I arrived, one of our first discussions was on breast ironing. I started telling her about the breast ironing campaign going on in the North West Region of Cameroon by Chi Yvonne Leina. I told her about how she too needed to become an advocate against breast ironing in her own little way. All the while as I spoke, she had her head buried to her plate of rice. I asked her why she wasn’t responding to all that I was saying. “Nakinti, do you know that I ironed my daughter’s breast when she was in primary 5,” she said crying. She told me her daughter was developing into a woman too early and she taught it was wise for her to stop it somehow. So she went ahead to iron her breasts and the breasts disappeared. Today, her daughter is just 16 but having very big breasts. “You just made me to understand why my daughter’s breasts have grown to be extraordinarily big,” she says. “May God forgive me for doing that to my daughter.” My friend told me she spends most of her time looking for the strongest breast wears for her daughter in the market. That is because her daughter herself feels uncomfortable about her own breasts. Sometimes, her daughter puts on 2 breast wears just in a bid to hide the size of her breasts. She feels bad that such a thing is happening to her daughter and her. The campaign against breast ironing has entered another gear now. On the 6th of December 2012, Gender Danger is organizing a breast ironing workshop to train women who will become community actors/advocates against breast ironing. This campaign is done in partnership with the Regional Delegation of Women’s Empowerment and the Family North West. It is going to train about 40 community actors. Such capacity building workshops will be done in different regions of Cameroon in a bid to fight this practice.
Speaking with Chi Yvonne the initiator of Gender Danger who is so passionate about this work, she says "Gender Danger is also planning to initiate a media campaign and free screening and treatment of breast related diseases in hot spots of breast ironing .Also we are planning a sensitization march against breast ironing early next year.We are also looking for financial support to help intensify the work.My heart cry is for the restoration of the self esteem of these young girls and women.Mothers should begin talking to their daughters about sex and not destroying their bodies".
The fight against breast ironing in Cameroon is on; please join us to say NO TO BREAST IRONING.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to Ending Gender-Based Violence 2012.