Cameroon girls battle 'breast ironing'
By Randy Joe Sa'ah
BBC News, Yaounde
A nationwide campaign is under way in Cameroon to
discourage the widespread practice of "breast
This involves pounding and massaging the developing
breasts of young girls with hot objects to try to make
Statistics show that 26% of Cameroonian girls at
puberty undergo it, as many mothers believe it
protects their daughters from the sexual advances of
boys and men who think children are ripe for sex once
their breasts begin to grow.
The most widely used instrument to flatten the breasts
is a wooden pestle, used for pounding tubers in the
kitchen. Heated bananas and coconut shells are also
Student Geraldin Sirri recounted her painful
"My mother took a pestle, she warmed it well in the
fire and then she used it to pound my breasts while I
was lying down. She took the back of a coconut, warmed
it in the fire and used it to iron the breasts.
"I was crying and trembling to escape but there was no
Another woman from Mamfe in south-west Cameroon told
me she ironed her own breasts as a girl so that she
would not be forced into early marriage as is the
practice in her village.
"I wanted to go to school like other girls who had no
breasts," Emilia said.
Many mothers have no regrets about ironing their
"Breast ironing is not a new thing. I am happy I
protected my daughter. I could not stand the thought
of boys spoiling her with sex before she completed
school," one woman explained.
"Unfortunately, television is encouraging all sorts of
sexual immorality in our children."
Anthropologist Dr Flavien Ndonko says that breast
ironing is not an effective method of preventing early
sex and pregnancies because many of the girls still
become pregnant. He recommends plain talking between
parents and their daughters.
"What you have to really do is talk about the issue of
sexual reproductive health with the child. So that she
is aware about what it means growing up and having
breasts or having periods," he says.
With the help of sponsors, a group of teenage girls
called the Association of Aunties has produced a
television campaign to expose the problems of breast
"Massaging the breasts of young girls is very
dangerous. This is harmful to health... Do not force
them to disappear or appear - allow them to grow
naturally," one of the adverts says.
So far, no research has taken place on the medical
effects of breast ironing.
However, Prof Anderson Doh, a cancer surgeon and
director of the state-owned Gynaecological Hospital in
Cameroon's capital, Yaounde, says the practice is
"There are structures in the breast made of connective
tissue. Now if you over iron the breast, if you use
very hot objects, if you pound on the breast at this
tender age when the structures are developing of
course you could also cause damage," he says.
The victims do have protection under the law, as long
as the matter is reported within a few months, lawyer
Buba Ndefiembu says.
If a medical doctor determines that damage has been
caused to the breasts, then the person responsible can
go to jail for up to three years.
This does not always deter mothers who see their
daughters hitting puberty earlier and earlier thanks
to better living standards.
But the Association of Aunties hopes their campaign
will start to change attitudes and spare other girls
future physical and emotional pain.
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