Breast Ironing: From Africa To Britain
Breast ironing, a draconian Cameroonian tradition, is the massaging of young girls’ breasts with hot tools, such as pestles and spatulas, to flatten their developing breasts. Different tools are used twice a day for several days, weeks and months to delay or permanently destroy natural developing breasts. For people who can’t afford tools or other stones and hammers, use an elastic belt so as to prevent breasts from growing. Breast ironing is also present in other African countries, including Benin, Chad, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Kenya, Togo and Zimbabwe. The intention of this practice is to delay girls’ sexual relationships to make their bodies less attractive for men, in an attempt to protect the girl from sexual harassment, to prevent early pregnancy that would tarnish the family name, or to allow the girl to pursue education rather than be forced into early marriage by “removing” signs of puberty. The term “breast ironing” is disturbing enough, but for some mothers the alternative for their daughters seems much worse. The average age of rape victims in Cameroon is 15.
This brutal anti-women practice is carried out in all ten regions of Cameroon, across all of the 200 different ethnic groups, and effects 3.8 million girls around the world, according to the United Nations (UN). Typically girls aged 9 to 14 are obligated to go through this phenomenally painful procedure, at the time when they are just reaching or have reached puberty. A sad aspect of this practice is that the procedure itself is carried out by family members, mainly women, mothers in particular. For the most part, the act is committed either at home or with the assistance of a healer. Therefore, the issues are highly complex as these acts stem from deep-rooted cultural beliefs, but there is a need to assist people to see and understand that no matter how well-intentioned they might believe their acts to be, they are essentially acts of violence. Additionally, similar to female genital mutilation (FGM), the UN has identified breast-ironing as one of five under-reported crimes relating to gender-based violence.
In addition to the pain of the ironing process, the practice also causes tissue damage, burns, deformities and psychological problems. Other severe illnesses associated with the practice are high fever, abscess in the breast, breast pimples on and around the nipples, cysts in the breasts, itching of breasts, severe chest pain, flow of breast milk, infection of breasts as a result of scarification, one breast being bigger than the other, breasts never growing bigger and/or complete disappearance of the breasts. Other possible side effects include breast infection, malformed breast and the possible complete eradication of one or two breasts. In addition, cases of breast cancer have also been identified in women.
When it comes to law and policies against this horrendous practice, Cameroon does not have any policy in place aimed at eradicating the practice altogether nor is there any legislation aimed at criminalizing the act. Even though, the country is a signatory to the African Charter on Human Rights – and rights of women in Africa include the right to life, physical integrity and protection against harmful traditional practices – the country has not passed any law banning breast ironing.
Even though victims have protection under law, very few cases are taken to court. If it is concluded that damage has been done to the victim, the responsible party can face up to 3 years in prison. Victims, however, are often too young and very unlikely to report against their family member. In the absence of a government enforced law, the generational practice of breast ironing thrives and leads to a health consequence for girls and women who experience it. Above all, the Cameroon government must have a political will to promote and enforce laws for the ban of breast ironing otherwise million of Cameroonian girls will continue to endure physical and psychological trauma.
Furthermore, the Cameroon government should, in cooperation with all women organizations, intensify efforts on health education regarding the consequences of the practice of breast ironing, for the whole population. In addition, health care personnel and other social entities such as social services and the police as well as community leaders should be empowered to denounce the perpetrators of breast ironing. The practice creates difficulties in the sense that health care and social services, such as police and social welfare services, will not report potential victims or perpetrators of breast ironing. Therefore, massive education on the health consequences of breast ironing should become a priority and inter-sectoral cooperation should be an essential component. Civil society organizations (CSOs) have a great role to play, so they should lobby the government into enforcing and putting in place policies that will help eradicate this harmful practice.
The practice is not geographically designated to Africa. Recently, there has been an outcry against the growing number of breast ironing cases in Britain. The concept and procedure of breast ironing is slowly spurring up in Britain and it has received the attention of the government. Government officials have vowed to look closely into the matter so that these kinds of violent acts are not perpetuated towards young girls in Britain. The practice of breast ironing is increasing in the UK, with at least 1,000 girls across areas inhabited by West African communities at risk of being subjected to the treatment. The apprehension was raised by Conservative MP for Rossendale & Darwen, Jake Berry, who claimed that at least a quarter of children’s service departments in the UK were not trained to deal with this practice. Even though people may be hesitant to put a halt to such practice, Minister from the Home Office Karen Bradley believes that the UK government is absolutely committed to halting breast ironing. So far, however, there is no formal legislation in place to ban breast ironing; there have been no prosecutions relating to breast ironing in the UK, just warnings, although awareness has begun to increase.
Many awareness campaigns have been created to counter these practices in both Cameroon and England. In Cameroon, there have been several awareness campaigns for the past few years carried out by women who have realized the dire consequences of the practice, while other international organizations are also working to help change a mentality that stipulates and perpetuates ideas of restricting young women’s rights over their bodies. In England, the UN is raising awareness with charities including the London-based Women and Girls Development Organisation (CAWOGIDO). The charity is working with the Metropolitan Police, social services, health authorities and schools to raise awareness of breast ironing and other gender-based violence.
Women who are now campaigning against breast ironing, attempt to educate the girls by asserting that breasts are created by God and ironing them is dangerous. They believe that education is the only way to put an end to this barbaric practice. They also emphasize the importance of sex education as a guarantee against teenage sexual activities and pregnancies rather than breast ironing. If girls are taught about their bodies at the onset of puberty, they will be able to take care of their bodies better. Some organizations which are working for awareness against breast ironing include the London-based charity Women’s and Girl’s Development Organisation (CAWOGIDO) and the Association of Aunties, a national network in Cameroon that promotes sexual dialogue. They are often short of sponsors which makes it difficult to work at the scale they would like to.
Despite the fact that every corner of the world is striving towards progression, such draconian traditions refuse to disappear. There is a constant continuation of violent acts done in the name of so-called betterment or safety of the society, mostly targeted at women, by both women and men. It is important to point out here that societal norms which deem subjects of sex and sexual health as taboo subjects, make these acts possible. Addressing the lack of information about sex in the family is not acceptable to social norms, which is why it is very difficult to talk about sexuality due to modesty. As a result, they prefer to get rid of any bodily signs of sexuality altogether.
No mother should be made to feel that the only way to keep their daughter safe from the eyes of other men and from rape or harassment is to alter her body in the way it naturally is. Even though, it is done in good intention, it still amounts to domestic violence and must be stopped. If parents are not comfortable discussing sexuality with their children, it should be the responsibility of the education system to offer classes to their students. A combated effort from both men and women is needed to raise the status of women in society. Education is the first step to realizing the end of this form of mutilation. A well-intentioned mother shouldn’t be prosecuted for deforming her child when she does so out of ignorance. In this scenario, fathers in particular are willfully ignorant of this practice in their homes, which is why framing this as a woman’s issue, allows men to be absolved of responsibility. The mutilation of young girls is something that both genders need to take responsibility for.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which she might be associated.