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Breast Ironing

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Breast ironing is a widespread well established cultural practice in Cameroon. It is also practiced in countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Togo, Benin, and Guinea. Breast ironing is the massaging and pounding of young girls' breasts at puberty with hot objects such as kitchen knives, traditional sticks, pestles and bananas. The object is to stop the breasts from growing so as to limit early marriages or stop sexual advances from men. Most perpetrators of these acts, elderly women in the villages have advanced several reasons for this. For this group of women a girls breast is only suppose to be seen if she is ripe for marriage and anything short of this is a crime.

In the widikum community in North West Region of Cameroon an old woman is not shy to expose her breast as a prideful sign of passing through the breast ironing ritual in her teenage age successfully. There are already well established female mobilization forces in these communities solely responsible for the ironing of breast. During the exercise mostly performed at night, the perpetrators and their host sing a high pitched tune “to make the operation nicer”.

More than two million girls in Cameroon have faced a breast ironing night. Victims who are ready to comment on the act report that the effects of breast ironing are painful and cause a lot of psychological and emotional stress in them. Young men in rural areas may refuse to marry women who have experienced breast ironing. Victims (girls) are left with horrific testimonies. Some of them today already mothers look back with anguish and deep revulsion.
Today, many NGOs in Cameroon are raising awareness on the effects of breast ironing. The Association of Aunties which works for the emancipation of single mothers with support from the German technical cooperation for development (GTZ) in Cameroon and the Center for Human Rights and Peace Advocacy (CHRAPA) with assistance from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Bamenda, Cameroon advocate that breast ironing is a social injustice and should be punishable under the Cameroon law. But those who carry out this cultural practice say they do not intend to inflict pain on their victims.

Today on our program, two experts (Host 1) A representative from the ministry of women’s empowerment and the family in Cameroon. (Host 2) Mr Jamils Richards a humans Rights activist. Both experts sitting as host will examine (breast ironing) as a cultural and traditional practice in Cameroon and how it affects young girls, our sisters, mothers and Aunties.

That's right. We know that some cultural practices involve violence against women. As rural areas become more integrated with urban centers, many of these practices are now being highlighted. A group called the Association of Aunties works for the empowerment of single mothers in Cameroon. Recently, they stated their opinion that, although breast ironing is a widespread cultural practice in the country, it leaves young girls with psychological stress and physical pain.

First, let's explain what breast ironing is. Breast ironing is the massaging and pounding of the developing breasts of young girls to prevent them from growing. Many elderly women in the villages see breast ironing as the best way to prevent their daughters from prostitution and early marriages. These women argue that breasts which develop quickly are a sign of juvenile delinquency and must be checked. Hot objects like sticks, warmed bananas, kitchen knives and pestles are used.

One in four girls in Cameroon has experienced breast ironing. It is practiced in all 10 regions of Cameroon, and is most prevalent in the Littoral province, where a survey found that more than half of girls had undergone the practice. More than half of the cases of breast ironing were performed by mothers. Most of the victims are left with physical pain and emotional stress. They are also left with black spots and wrinkles on their breasts. In many communities, there are women who are experienced at breast ironing and are paid to carry out the act. The payment is often salt, wood and palm oil. It is painful that though these girls are exposed to Ironing, the high rate of prostitution which their perpetrators want to reduce is still very visibly rampant. Most of these victims still get pregnant at teenage ages; even from old men who are suppose to protect them and to send them to school.

A girl by the name of Manka’a Sirri Ngum , from the Bafut community of northwest tribes in the grass field of Cameroon has bad memories of breast ironing. The experience left her with marks on her breast. She later developed breast cancer. She remembers the flattening of her breast with a hot steel kitchen knife. She hardly can with hold her tears. The operation left her in great pain. Her frustrations were intensified when she later lost a breast through surgery to remove the cancer. Manka’a remembers that her mother later mistook the growing cancer in her breast for an evil spell which could only be eliminated through more ironing. Now Manka’a is ready to speak out against all odds in the village.

Host 2: Changing this cultural norm will take time and education. In the regions of Cameroon where breast ironing is practiced, those who defend it as a cultural practice say they have no intention of inflicting pain and psychological stress on the girls. But resistance by girls to breast ironing is often seen as rebellion against established village traditions and rules. As a result, most of these young innocent girls suffer in silence

Host 1: The Association of Aunties has said that any act which is against social justice, whether it is a cultural, traditional practice or not, is against Cameroon law. They are working with the victims to mitigate the practice.

Host 2: According to Dr. Nick Ngwayam, a surgeon at the St. Louis Clinic in Bamenda the Northwest Region of Cameroon, very often the developing tissues in the breast are expanded and destroyed by the heat applied in breast ironing, first, because it is done in a harsh manner. This according to Dr Louis, attract lots of problems during child bearing that may result to poor breast feeding habits or the none flow of breast milk after delivery at all. This medical doctor says can lead to serious consequences in child bearing and upbringing.

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