In Cameroon and it’s diaspora including Britain, West Africa, Kenya, Chad and the Ivory Coast, there is a practice called breast ironing or breast flattening. In Cameroon alone, 1 in 4 girls experience this cultural phenomenon in a survey of 5,000 women aged 10-82. Of girls under nine, 50% have had this procedure. Thirty eight percent of girls under 11 went through this act.
It happens mostly in urban areas where mothers are trying to prevent their pre-pubescent daughters from attracting sexual attention and rape. Many of these mothers fear for their daughters, not even wanting them to go outside when boys and men are outside.
As girls eat a healthier diet, girls are developing breasts at an earlier age. Surprisingly, this coincides with an increase in education and literacy. Mothers try to decrease sexuality so their daughters have a greater chance for being educated or simply because it’s perceived as a cultural expectation.
Breasts might be bound but more often ironing occurs. Leaves, bananas, coconut shells, grinding stones, ladles or spatulas are massaged or pressed on the breasts. In many cases pestles, hammers, or stones are heated over coals and pushed into breasts. Teachers have identified when this has happened when the girls have bruises or are unable to raise their arms suddenly.
Breast ironing causes both physical and psychological damage. Girls suffer deformities of the breast, scars, and an inability to breastfeed, leading to a higher incidence of infant mortality. Cancer can also happen at younger ages. One woman who had the procedure when she was young, died of breast cancer at age 24.
It continues to amaze me what damage is done due to cultural expectations. Like FGM, girls are subjected to horrible, life changing acts in order to reduce male sexual appetites. The consequences of this act last a lifetime. Mothers need more education about the deleterious effects and standing by their daughters needs. Their fears need to be allayed.