Breast Ironing is a secretive and brutal form of mutilation. It is known as breast flattening or breast sweeping which 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.
This is primarily practiced in West and Central Africa- Nigeria, Togo, the 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.
Mothers or family members consider breast ironing as a way to assure the well-being of the child, trying to protect their daughters from sexual exploitation, early extramarital pregnancy, or early sexual relations, and keeping their daughters in school for longer. The purpose behind this painful custom is 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.”
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 rights 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.
One reason why breast ironing isn’t talked about as much, or is not reported is because of the intimate nature of the practice. Mothers mostly carry it out in a setting where mothers believe that they are doing it to protect their girls and to provide them with 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 discussing the custom openly. This makes it difficult to collect the necessary information on 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 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
The real reasons behind this practice are 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.
Several organizations and governments have taken steps to raise awareness of the dangers of breast flattening and encourage its eradication. Education campaigns, laws, and policies have been implemented to discourage the practice and promote the health and well-being of young girls. However, changing deeply ingrained cultural practices and beliefs can be a slow process, and continued efforts are needed to protect young girls from the harmful effects of breast flattening.
In recent years there has been a lot of awareness raised about female genital mutilation. However, campaigners insist there also needs to be a focus on breast ironing, before it becomes a more widespread problem.
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Ramya is an Assistant Professor & Tribal Researcher Department of English, P.K.R Arts College for Women. Erode Dt, Tamilnadu,Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org