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Breast ironing or breast flattening is a 'traditional' practice primarily observed in Cameroon and regions of Africa as a way to try to prevent adolescent girls from growing breasts. This is typically attempted by pounding or massaging the breasts with heated objects such as wooden pestles, coconut shells, stones, bananas, spatulas, or leaves. Reasons for this 'ritual' include the belief that it will prevent the girls from being victims of rape, to deter unwanted sexual attention from men, to avoid early marriage, to avoid early pregnancy that would shame the family, and to allow the girls to complete their schooling. The idea that preventing girls from developing breasts would make them less likely to be raped is ridiculous, considering that pre-pubescent children and adult men (neither of whom have breasts) are also often victims of rape, both in Africa and in the West, and a lack of breasts certainly isn't going to prevent pregnancies. Of course, the fact that they are so worried about the risk of rape, and are willing to take such drastic measures to prevent it, is troubling in and of itself.
Breast ironing is a widespread epidemic in Cameroon where studies have found 50% of adolescent girls living in cities and 25% of all girls nationwide have been subjected to 'ironing'; it is more common in the urban areas due to sexual advances being more prevalent. Cameroon has over 200 ethnic groups and, despite their different customs and norms, they all practice breast ironing. Cameroon's Gender Empowerment and Development (GeED) organization found that female relatives are usually the perpetrators who perform this 'ritual', and they found around 58% of the "flattening" cases had been done by the child's mother.
The practice has been said to have begun due to women believing it would help them produce better breast milk, but rising numbers of rapes and teen pregnancies convinced mothers to perform the 'ironing' on their daughters in hopes of warding off sexual assaults and pregnancies. With the increase in rapes following the rise of Boko Haram (who use it as a weapon of war), this practice has become more common as parents try to use breast ironing to save their daughters from being attacked or abducted by making them look pre-adolescent.
While Cameroon did ratify the African Charter on human rights and rights of women in Africa (which included the right to protection against harmful traditional practices), they have passed no laws against breast ironing.
For whatever reasons, no medical studies have been conducted to analyze the effects of breast ironing. In addition to the pain and psychological trauma, medical experts have observed many health concerns that can be caused by the 'ironing'. The United States State Department has reported that breast ironing can result in "burns, deformities, and psychological problems". According to the United Nations Population Fund, breast ironing can cause numerous health problems including cysts, abscesses, dissymmetry of the breasts, infections, and may even result in the disappearance of one or both breasts.
A Cameroonian mother named Philomene Moungang spoke about her experiences with breast ironing. Moungang began 'ironing' her two daughters when they were eight years old, believing it was for "their own good." She had to take one of the girls to the hospital after she developed blisters and abscesses. The doctor informed the mother that she could "ruin" her daughter. Sadly, one of Moungang's daughters almost lost her first child due to the damage breast ironing had done: "When Mariane married and delivered her first baby, it took a long time — about a month — for her breasts to start producing milk and the child almost died. I was told it was because I had ironed her breasts. I was frightened."
Evidence for it preventing rape
“”If society has been silent about it up to now it is because, like other harmful practices done to women such as female genital mutilation, it was thought to be good for the girl… even the victims themselves thought it was good for them.
|—Flavien Ndonko, Anthropologist and representative of German Development Agency GTZ
Various organizations such as Cameroon's Network of Aunties Association (RENATA) or Germany’s Association for International Co-operation (GTZ) have been campaigning for years to raise awareness and put an end to breast ironing. The Friends of the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA) consider breast ironing to be a human rights violation and have estimated around four million girls — some as young as nine- years old — have been affected by it.
- Inter Press Service "RIGHTS-CAMEROON: An Unwelcome 'Gift of God'"
- BBC "Cameroon girls battle 'breast ironing'"
- Gender Empowerment and Development "Breast Ironing : A harmful traditional practice in Cameroon", page 5
- The Daily Beast "They’re Mutilating Little Girls’ Breasts in Cameroon to ‘Protect Them’ From Boko Haram"
- Feinstein International Center "Understanding Breast 'Ironing'", page 4
- CNN "Breast ironing tradition targeted in Cameroon"
- Current "Breast Ironing"
- CRIN "Millions of Cameroon girls suffer 'breast ironing'"
- Gender Empowerment and Development "Breast Ironing : A harmful traditional practice in Cameroon", page 3
- Independent "'Breast ironing': Girls 'have chests flattened out' to disguise the onset of puberty"
- Ebony "Fighting Against Breast Ironing in Cameroon"