“Before this breast band, my mother used the grinding tone—heated in the fire—to massage my chest. Every night my mother examines my chest (and) massages me, sometimes with the pestle,” Matia adds. “Although I cry hard because of the pain, she tells me: ‘Endure, my daughter; you are young and there is no point in having breasts at your age’.”
Josaine Matia, 11 years old
Words cannot aptly convey my horror at discovering this practice.
What is Breast Ironing?
Breast ironing is a traditional practice that involves massaging or pressing the breasts of adolescent girls in order to suppress and reverse their development. The rationale is to prevent girls from developing breasts in the belief that a flat, child-like chest will discourage unwanted male attention, rape and pre-marital pregnancy.
In an attempt to control female sexuality, and reduce male violence against women, the bodies of young girls are being mutilated. Clearly what is needed is more education regarding sexuality and rape. Incidents of teenage pregnancy would be reduced if they had access to good, reliable birth control. Most humans are sexual beings and the scaring or mutilation of the body will not in any way reduce the desire. One of the options that could be taught to the young is masturbation. It should be presented as a good alternative to engaging in sex with another person. Not only is it natural, it will teach young girls about their bodies. Adolescents also need to be aware that there are other ways to be sexual with each other, that do not necessarily require intercourse. This includes, but is not limited to, heavy petting, mutual masturbation, oral sex, and anal sex. With each of the aforementioned there is no risk of pregnancy ( though in some instances risk of STD’s), and yet their sexual urges would be fulfilled. Informing them that there are kinds of sex that do not privilege intercourse, would also open the door to discuss the ways in which intercourse privileges male sexuality. A more female centric understanding of sex could be perpetuated this way.
A greater understanding of rape is also clearly needed. Rape is not about men wanting to have sex. Men rape women to express power. Deforming the bodies of young women will not reduce the incidents of rape. Stronger penalties for rapists, would go along way to reducing the incidents of rape.
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 keeps silent. This silence perpetuates the practice and all of its consequences. Breast ‘ironing’ involves massaging the growing breasts of young girls in order to make them disappear, usually by using a stone, a hammer or a spatula that has been heated over coals.
Just as with FGM, this is a crime against young women committed by their mothers. Can there be nothing more damaging, than having the mutilation orchestrated by one that loves you? This is clearly a painful procedure. If this is a generational issue, I find it hard to believe that fathers are unaware of what is happening to their daughters. If they are married to women whose breasts have been ironed, why are they not discussing this issue with their wives?
I believe that fathers are willfully ignorant of this practice in their homes. Framing this as a womans issue, allows men to be absolved of their responsibility. The mutilation of young girls is something that both genders need to take responsibility for.
Proponents say they do this to discourage male interference in young girls, to prevent girls themselves from pursuing men, to discourage girls from engaging in sexual intercourse at a very young age and to reduce the risk of pregnancy. Because the topic of sex is taboo, young girls remain ignorant of how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. Young people make up most of the 5.5 per cent of the population living with HIV, and teenage pregnancy is a growing concern—thus increasing reliance on breast ironing to deter sexual activity.
Proponents also argue that discouraging male attention will ensure that the girl’s studies will not be interrupted.
I find it interesting that the mutilation is occurring because of biology (read: womans ability to bear children) and male aggression and or “attention”. Breast ironing reifies the ways in which patriarchy is inscribed on the bodies of girls and women. Notice that the genesis of this mutilation is the control of female sexuality, unwanted pregnancy and rape. There is no suggestion that the male body be similarly marked, and or disciplined.
It is also disturbing that it is justified as a way to increase female agency because it “allows” a girl to study. If education is truly a concern, why is the most basic form of education denied to these young girls? Surely accurate scientific information of the reproductive system, a class in sexuality, and a good class regarding global gender disparity would go along way to address the issues that parents are concerned about. Education that does not include the aforementioned leads to these harmful practices being acceptable.
Breast ironing appears to be most widely-practiced in Cameroon. It’s more common in the Christian and animist south of the country than the Muslim north, where only 10 per cent of women are affected.
It also occurs in Guinea-Bissau, West and Central Africa, including Chad, Togo, Benin, Guinea-Conakry.
Some 24 per cent of girls in Cameroon, about one girl in four, undergo breast ironing.
Breast ironing occurs extensively in the 10 provinces throughout Cameroon.
A sample survey published in January 2006 of 5000 girls and women aged between 10 and 82 in Cameroon, estimates that 4 million women had suffered the process.
Today, 3.8 million teenagers are threatened with the practice.
Up to 53 per cent of women and girls interviewed in the coastal Littoral province in the southeast, where the country’s main port, Douala, is situated, admit to having had their breasts ‘ironed’.
More than half (58 per cent) of cases breast ironing were undertaken by mothers. Other relatives also participate.
These are only the stats for one country. How many womens lives are impacted by this cruel practice? We must reach out to our sisters in solidarity. Their cries of pain must be heard by all.
Health and Socio-Economic Implications
Breast ironing is terribly painful and violates a young girl’s physical integrity.
Breast ironing exposes girls to numerous health problems such as abscesses, itching, discharge of milk, infection, dissymmetry of the breasts, cysts, breast infections, severe fever, tissue damage and even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts.
This painful form of mutilation could not only have negative health consequences for the girls, but often proves futile when it comes to deterring teenage sexual activity.
What I see here is a list of the possible physical ramifications of this practice, without any discussion of the mental trauma. Just because something is common in society, does not mean that it does not leave an individual with psychological damage. Clearly to truly heal these women will need counseling. Not only have their bodies undergone trauma, but it is a trauma that has come from the women in their lives that they are supposed to be able to trust. Breast Ironing is not a one time event like FGM, it happens repeatedly throughout a young girls adolescence. I believe it is fair to assume that having undergone this kind of repeated torture, a vast majority of women would suffer from some form of post traumatic stress disorder.
The Network of Aunties Association, RENATA, made up of members who have undergone the practice are drawing public attention to the psychological trauma and other ensuing health risks in order to protect young girls from this form of bodily mutilation.
RENATA has produced radio and television spots, and several radio and television journalists have joined in spreading information about breast ironing. Leaflets and calendars outlining the types of objects used in breast ironing, the extent of the practice and its consequences have also been produced.
When I first heard about this, I was filled with impotent rage. What could a western woman living half a world away do to help this cause? I decided to blog about it to help raise awareness, and to write a letter to my local representative encouraging him to bring what ever political pressure he could to this issue. I encourage whoever reads this blog to spread the word, and write their representative. Perhaps if globally more people are aware and western governments put pressure on countries akin to Cameroon, an end can be brought to this. I believe that no effort in the pursuit of justice is ever wasted.
Governments in affected countries should raise public awareness of the dangers of breast ironing and why it needs to be stopped. Awareness raising should also include frank discussions of sexuality. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for many parents to talk to their children about sex owing to modesty or for cultural reasons. Some expert theorize that parents prefer instead, to rid their children of the bodily signs of puberty in order to avoid potentially embarrassing discussions. The onset of adolescence, however, is exactly the right time to start such dialogues.
Prosecution of perpetrators
I do not agree with prosecution of the perpetrators. If women were made aware of exactly how harmful these practices are, they would over time refuse to do this to their daughters. Already there is a reduction in FGM through educational programs. If parents are not comfortable discussing sexuality with their children, it should be the responsibility of the education system to offer classes to their students. What is not being taught in the home, needs to be addressed. It will take a combined effort of women and men to raise the status of women in society. Education is the first step to realizing the end of this form of mutilation. You cannot persecute a well intentioned mother for deforming her child when she does so out of ignorance.