The ethnic groups in Cameroon, a country in west central Africa, have long hidden a very unusual, painful practice. Some call it a traditional ritual. Others think of it as a means to keep the girls away from early age sexual advances and pregnancy. But for the many girls who undergo this ritual, it has become a way of life over the course of time. Most of us have heard about female genital mutilation (FGM) or khatna practiced largely in the Bohra community in India. But only few know that an equally cruel practice exists in Cameroon and elsewhere: breast ironing.
Girls, as young as nine, endure scorching pain every day before going to school and, occasionally, at night. Mothers and aunts heat up objects such as coconut shells, stones and kitchen utensils and use these heated, burning objects to pound the breast tissues of their daughters. Helpless school-going daughters, shell-shocked at the barbarism, simply stand perplexed in pain and wait for the ritual to end. It is believed that fathers usually do not know about this practice and, where they do, may remain absent. This goes on for weeks behind closed doors.
Breast ironing flows from generation to generation. It is believed that girls are made to undergo this practice at the age of ten to twelve (pre-adolescence) so that they have sound memories of the methods and can later repeat them on their daughters. Amy Hall spoke to Ashish Goel about her experiences of interaction with women who had undergone breast ironing. Amy describes: “Ben...underwent breast ironing in Cameroon when she was 13 years old. She feels that the experience pushed her into having a child early because of her lack of confidence. She now has seven children and her eldest daughter had her breasts ‘ironed’ by her mother in law, despite Ben’s opposition to the practice”.
Due to the young age coupled with inadequate literacy, the victims do not formally report incidences of breast ironing against their own family members. Because of this, there are often difficulties faced in tracing these incidents and then highlighting them in the media. Amy, who authored an investigative piece on the subject in New Internationalist Magazine, said: “The main obstacles I faced when writing the article was that there is little research on the topic and that it is usually kept behind closed doors”. But why do mothers turn to be so cruel so as to inflict this inexpressible pain on their own daughters? And why do other female members of the family conspire in this heinous crime? “The reason given for the practice is to stop the breasts growing in order to discourage unwanted male attention, early marriage or pregnancy, sexual assault, and rape”, explains Amy.
Statistics from the United Nations Population Fund suggest that approximately 3.8 million girls in Cameroon undergo breast ironing every year. Besides its obvious physical impact, breast ironing results into “long lasting psychological effects on girls”, believes Amy. This is because, “it can seem like a punishment for a girl’s natural physical development and breasts can be a source of personal shame”, she argues.
The situation in Cameroon is barely different from that of India. In Cameroon too, the blame is conveniently shifted to the victims for being dressed provocatively or going out at night alone. This can only be tackled through education and campaigning, says Amy, who thinks that “brining the issue out into the open, to all genders and age groups is key, as well as improving sex education and a genuine commitment to tackling violence against women and girls”.