Breast ironing is the practice of massaging or pounding the breasts of young girls with heated or cold objects. This is done with the aim of suppressing or reversing the growth of the breast or hindering or delaying the growth process of the breasts of young girls when they first begin to develop. The practice is generally carried out when the girl child shows the first physical signs of entering puberty.
Breast ironing involves the process whereby some mothers and guardians use heated bananas, kitchen pounding tubers, hot stones, pestles, coconut shells to flatten their daughters’ breast. These undertakings may be out of ignorance of the negative health problems that may arise in the process and the illegality attached to it, as such, there is need to broaden sensitization on breast ironing issues.
Breast ironing is a harmful practice that has been silenced for too long. ‘’If society has been silent about it up to now, it’s because, like other harmful practices carried out on women such as female genital mutilation, it was thought to be good for the girls, even the victims themselves thought it was good for them.’’ [Flavien Ndonko, Anthropologist and local representative of German Development Agency GTZ].
Statistics show that 26% of Cameroonian girls at puberty undergo breast ironing ordeals, 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 breast begin to grow.
According to some of the mothers or guardians, breast ironing is actually going to delay or retard the growth of their daughters’ breast thereby keeping away men who could possibly ‘’eye’’ and get their daughters pregnant if their breast are allowed to grow earlier.
Some parents or guardians perform breast ironing simple base on reasons that their own parents had done it to them and thus, the grand children of their parents need to maintain the family tradition.
In particular but common cases, some young girls perform the breast ironing rituals on themselves because they admire certain elderly persons [stars and societal models] having small breast and maybe other slim physique or body shape.
Fear of being forced into an early marriage. Some young girls carryout breast ironing on themselves because they don’t want to be forced into early marriages by their parents.
Some parents desire to see their children complete school without unwanted pregnancies and so they perform the breast ironing ordeals on them to prevent their breasts from growing quick and attracting men.
While there is little research on the health effects of the practice, it is considered that the practice can cause tissue damage in addition to the pains of the ironing process. The U.S. State Department, in its 2010 human rights report on Cameroon, cited news reports on breast ironing ‘’victimized numerous girls in the country’’ and in some cases ‘’resulted in burns, deformities, and psychological problems.’’
A plethora of illnesses can be associated with breast ironing including high fever, abscess in the breast, breasts pimples on and around the breasts nipples, cysts in de breasts itching of breasts, severe chest pain , flow of breasts milk, infection of breasts as a result of scarification, one breast being bigger than the other.
Other possible side effects include breast infections, malformed breast and the possibility that such a practice could lead to the complete eradication of one or both breasts.
The UNFPA has mentioned that some cultural/traditional practices are harmful and they undermine the well-being of women. This reflects the idea that such customary practices have negative effects on the individual experiencing it. Another idea around such practices is that they often seek to restrict or control women and girl’s sexuality. The practices mentioned include among others, female genital cutting or mutilation [FGC/FGM] and breast ironing [OHCHR, 2013], regarded by some United Nations resolutions as harmful and violation of human rights.
With respect to our focus country, U.S. State Department, in its 2010 human rights report on Cameroon, cited news reports and said there are more than 200 ethnic groups in Cameroon with different norms and customs. Breast ironing is practiced by all of them 1 in 4 girls in Cameroon are affected. Approximately 140 million women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM [World Health Organization, Secretariat, March 20, 2008].
Female Genital Mutilation otherwise known as female genital cutting or female circumcision involves procedures that include the partial or total removal of the external female genital organs for cultural or other non-medical reasons. It is usually performed on girls between the ages of 4 and 10. In simpler terms, FGM just like breast ironing is a barbaric practice carried out by mothers on their daughter’s private parts.
It involves using sharp objects with doubtful sterility to cut off the clitoris [the upper and most sensitive part of the vagina] of a young girl and then sew it up and just allowing a little passage for urine and menstrual blood. Their main goal is to keep away the girl child from having sexual feelings or anxiety in other to prevent her from becoming promiscuous before or in marriage. With such a conception which seem adorable to its authors, we weep out for our poor little sisters out there for the pain, trauma and health risks they are being put through. If all of these are allowed in the society, where are their rights to sexuality just like every other human being?
FGM results in the cutting or removal of the tissues around the vagina that gives women pleasurable sexual feelings and is practiced for some of the following reasons;
For social and cultural control of women’s sexuality according to the proponents for the act and in its most extreme form, infibulations, where the girl’s vagina is sewn shut to ensure the girl child’s virginity.
In some cultures where female circumcision has been a tradition for hundreds of years, this procedure is considered a rite of passage for young girls and a reason being that families fear if their daughters are left uncircumcised, they may not be marriageable.
As in most cultures, there is also the fear that the girl might bring shame to the family by being sexually active and promiscuous hence becoming pregnant before marriage.
The ritual practice in some cultures of existence includes the cutting of the entire clitoris without anesthetic, sometimes as part of a maturity initiation rite. The procedure maybe performed in support of a mistaken belief that the absence of a clitoris will prevent a woman from experiencing orgasm or control masturbation and nymphomania.
The immediate risks after the procedure are hemorrhage [excessive bleeding], severe pains, and infections [including abscesses, tetanus, and gangrene];
The most severe consequence is death due to excessive blood loss;
Long term complications include scarring, interference with the drainage of urine and menstrual blood, chronic urinary tract infections, pelvic and back pain, and infertility;
Sexual intercourse can be painful;
Complications of childbirth are also eminent risk factors. It is unclear whether it is related to the procedure itself, or related to the general condition of medical practice, but infant and maternal death rates are generally higher in those communities where female circumcision is practiced.
A girl or young woman who has recently had the procedure of FGM performed on her may require supportive healthcare to control bleeding and antibiotics to prevent infections.
Women who were circumcised as children may require medical care to treat complications.
Pregnant women who have been infibulated maybe required to have the labial tissue cut open to allow the baby to be delivered.
Most importantly, the aftercare procedures should be provided by qualified medical personnel or physician with a supportive and non judgmental approach towards the girls and women who have undergone this procedure.
We examine both international and national laws and instruments in the following headings: