What is Breast Ironing?
Breast Ironing is a harmful cultural practice that continues to perpetuate silently in different parts of the world for centuries. Breast ironing is the pounding or ironing of a pubescent girl’s breasts, using hard or heated objects like stones, spatulas, and pestles, over a period of time (sometimes years) for the breasts to disappear or delay from developing further. Once a girl’s breast starts growing during puberty, usually, the mother carries out the practice
Where is this custom prevalent?
This is primarily practised in West and Central Africa- Nigeria, Togo, Republic of Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, but it is extremely prevalent in Cameroon. In a 2006 survey by a German Development Agency, GIZ estimated that more than 5,000 Cameroonian girls and women between the ages of 10 and 82 had undergone breast ironing.
Outside of Africa, there have been cases reporting 1000 girls from West African immigrant communities in the UK are believed to have undergone “breast ironing,”. According to the United Nations, globally approximately 3.8 million teenagers have been affected by breast ironing.
What are the Reasons Behind Breast Ironing?
Mothers or family members consider breast ironing as a way to assure the wellbeing of the child, trying to protect their daughters from sexual exploitation, early extramarital pregnancy, or early sexual relations, and keep their daughters in school for longer. The purpose behind this painful custom are to-
- make teenage girls look less “womanly.”
- prevent pregnancy and rape
- enable the girl to continue her education
- prevent dishonor being brought upon the family if the girl begins sexual relations outside of marriage
- avoid unwanted attention
An Al Jazeera report quoted a mother from Cameroon saying the pain and discomfort her daughter was enduring worried her less than the reports she had heard of teenage girls being sexually harassed or exploited by men. She was determined to focus her efforts on making her daughter less desirable to men – “I just don’t want her to become a target of boys around her.”
In Cameroon, 38% of children are married by the time they are 18, and more than a quarter of adolescent girls are mothers, and according to the Cameroon Medical Council, 20% of them drop out of school after getting pregnant.
How Does it Affect the Girls?
The practice is both physically and mentally harmful for young girls who undergo Breast ironing. Physically, breast ironing is excruciatingly painful. The US States Department’s 2010 human right report on Cameron revealed that breast ironing exposes girls to numerous health problems such as abscesses, cysts, itching and discharge of milk. It can also cause permanent damage to milk ducts, dissymmetry of the breasts, breast cancer, breast infections, and even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts.
The heated tools used to flatten the breasts might often leave scars, and the wounds can make girls vulnerable to infections and cause complications later in life.
Aside from the physical effects of breast ironing, the practice is also emotionally traumatic for the victim and may make them feel ashamed of their bodies. A lot of the victims might see the practice as a punishment and will therefore internalize the blame. Victims may also lose confidence and self-esteem.
Challenges in Ending this Practice
One reason why breast ironing isn’t talked about as much, or are not reported is because of the intimate nature of the practice. It is mostly carried out by mothers in a setting where mothers believe that they are doing it to protect their girls and to provide them a better future. People do not know how to talk about it as it is so firmly rooted in tradition and culture which strictly prohibits to discuss the custom openly. This makes collecting the necessary information on breast ironing very difficult.
Awareness Against Breast Ironing
Recently some survivors of breast ironing have come forward and spoken out openly. They made it their mission to educate Cameroonian women about its harmful effects to discourage them from continuing the practice.
Moreover, there are international efforts to end this harmful practice. For example, UK aid provides funds to a social movement called The Girls Generation that works all through Africa to reverse the social norms that lead to female genital mutilation.
Through education, awareness, and sustained efforts we hope that someday practices like breast ironing will give way to other traditions that celebrate the female body and portray them in a positive light, and help reverse these negative views.
A french photographer Gildas Paré spotlighted survivors of the practice. One of those survivors was a twenty-three-year-old Cameroonian girl who said, “She was my mom, so I had to obey when she called for me. Even if I ran, she’d catch me; …… It felt like she was stabbing something into my chest. She’s dead now. I never really understood what she was thinking—if she thought she was helping me or punishing me. My cousin raped me when I was 13 and I ended up giving birth to his chilare
Let’s Look At The Bigger Picture…
The real reasons behind this practice is related to societal taboos around women’s sexuality. In many cultures, women and girls are taught to be ashamed of their sexuality, their natural physical appearance, and their biological growth.
Women in all societies bear the responsibility of preventing rape and sexual assaults. Instead of correcting, shaming, or penalizing men for their behaviors, it is accepted that men are entitled to sexually violet women and it is women’s responsibility to protect themselves, shifting the entire onus of gender-based violence to women. We are still dealing with narratives like women were raped for ‘wearing revealing clothes’ or ‘traveling alone at night’. Unfortunately, no social customs can protect women and girls, unless the onus and shame are shifted to men.
While banning breast ironing would be a good first step, that might not be effective in solving the issue unless we address the underlying causes.The focus needs to be on deconstructing the broader ideology that sees female sexuality as shameful and something to be hidden and denied. We need to dismantle the doctrine that doesn’t stigmatize men for perpetrating women. We must unlearn the ideology that blames and punishes the victims of the crime, not the offenders. Unless we are able to change these ideologies, the need to “protect” girls by “breast ironing” and many other oppressive means will continue.