According to statistics from the United Nations Population Fund, one out of every four girls in Cameroon is a victim of breast ironing. The practice—which involves ironing the breasts of young girls using heated objects likes coconut shells, hammers, or grinding stones—is rampant in my community. It is an attempt to protect young girls from sexual predators who may respond to a child’s developing body. But it is also a practice that scars and damages a young girl for life.
But now, the silence around this harmful tradition has been broken, and what used to be done in the dark has been brought to light. Just over six months ago, Gender Danger—a grassroots organization that I am a part of—began a nationwide campaign to sensitize and educate people about the dangers of this painful and unhealthy practice. And now women and girls are beginning to talk about their experiences in churches, women’s groups, and even primary schools.
At Gender Danger, we educate women about the health risks associated with breast ironing. I have watched as women wept at their ignorance, never having imagined that the practice they believed was helping their daughters by keeping them out of the eyes of sexual predators was in fact putting them at great risk.
Invariably when we do this outreach, women identify themselves as victims, but also as perpetrators. They begin to tell us stories about how the practice has affected their children. Some tell us that their daughters’ breasts never grew after being ironed; others had children whose bodies had the opposite reaction, with breasts growing larger than expected. Others had daughters whose breasts grew unevenly, or whose breasts shrunk and withered.
At a Presbyterian church in Musang Bamenda, I cried as women told me the different methods they used to iron their daughters’ breasts: grinding stones heated over fire, hot bananas, broken clay pots, heated machetes.
One woman told a story of a truly horrific method: a girl is made to lie under a bed, and then the mother pounds the bed with a hot mortar pestle, pressing the girl’s breasts. As she told her story, another woman named Beatrice left her seat and cried out.
“That is me, oooh! That is me, oooh! That is me when I was a girl, oooh! That is what they did to me, oooh!” She fell to the ground and cried and cried.
As Beatrice was telling her story, the whole room cried, for this was just one story of many. But there was also a sense of relief—they were talking about their experiences; they were voicing what had been unvoiced for so long. Recently we stopped at a school in Bamenda. More than 90% of the pupils revealed that they knew about the practice.
One of the pupils explained how her breasts were ironed using a grinding stone. Many others said they witnessed it being done either to their sisters or to other girls in their community. Teachers testified as victims and as perpetrators. Our work was to teach the pupils of this school 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 the practice. They came to believe it was unjust.
On my way home from this primary school, I stopped to talk to a random woman on the street. She told me her name was Geneva. I asked if she had had her breasts ironed or if she had ironed the breasts of another. She laughed and told me she was both a perpetrator and a victim. I asked how many daughters she had and how many of them she had ironed, and she told me she had no daughters. I was confused.
“Madam, how are you a victim and a perpetrator then?” I asked.
“I ironed my own breasts when I was in primary school,” she said.
Geneva told me that she had a fellow pupil who had very big breasts. Boys in the school were always laughing at that girl and abusing her. One day, she and her five friends went home to her mother’s kitchen and took a grinding stone heated over fire. One after the other, they 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 the practice is and she will not dare to do it on any of her girls. I was glad to hear that.
Recently, I was talking to a friend about Gender Danger and our advocacy campaign. All the while as I spoke, she had her head buried in 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 through tears. She told me her daughter was developing into a woman too early and she thought it wise to try to stop the development.
“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.”
These testimonies make it clear that the advocacy work of Gender Danger is making a difference, but there is more work to be done. We are training women to become advocates against the practice. And we are launching a media campaign to raise further awareness. We are also planning a march denouncing the practice for early this year.
The fight against breast ironing in Cameroon is on; please join us to say NO TO BREAST IRONING.