It’s difficult to say when this began. All we know is that today’s elderly women also suffered this treatment during their adolescence. The last study on the subject concluded that breast ironing was practised throughout Cameroon, particularly in the centre and west of the country. This practice exists among the rich as well as the poor.
The reason why breast ironing is so rooted in our customs is because the mothers who endured it were told by their own mothers that it was to protect them. They therefore repeat the gesture to protect their own daughters. It’s a vicious circle that survives through ignorance more than tradition.
A lot of women become worried when their daughter reaches puberty around the age of eight or nine. They consider this to be too early, and therefore believe that their daughter will attract boys and risk becoming pregnant too early. The young girls are massaged until they are 15 or 16 years old. By making their breasts disappear, the mothers believe they can control the girls’ effect on men, and thus, their sexuality. This is obviously an illusion. We regularly meet very young mothers in our organisation who had their breasts ironed. That’s why we are working to convince parents that effective sex education can only be achieved through dialogue.
The breasts of a victim. © Réseau national des associations des tantines.
“Women, usually mothers or aunts, use spatulas, stones and even pestles”
The pain of the “ironing” is unimaginable. Women, usually mothers or aunts, use spatulas, stones or even pestles. These objects are heated up and struck against the developing breast. The strike leads to burns as well as infections and cysts. The long-term consequences are no less detrimental. According to a few specialists, the victims are more susceptible to breast cancer. Furthermore, in intimate situations, the damaged breasts become the source of body image issues. I met a girl who doesn’t even dare to take her clothes off in front of her friends.
Our work is to make mothers understand that breast ironing causes a lot more pain to a young girl than puberty does. We do a lot of field work, going to churches and traditional meetings among mothers. We make sure they thoroughly understand the pain they have caused. But changing attitudes takes time, given that there is no law forbidding this practice.