Breast ironing, a painful practice for Cameroon's girls

What would drive a mother to press a burning hot stone onto her daughter's chest? Writer Jamie Rich explores the practice of breast ironing in Cameroon.
By Jamie Rich
Sunday, March 7, 2010

DOUALA, CAMEROON -- A small pack of elementary-school-age kids surrounded me every time I left my favorite lunch spot, Chez Noura. They held up old wine bottles filled with fried groundnuts. "Madame, please, I need to eat," they shouted.

I never bought the nuts. I ran the eight-foot gantlet from the Lebanese restaurant's entrance to my parked Toyota SUV, with my 2-year-old daughter, Elle, slung over my hip. Sometimes I gave the kids taffy or leftover shawarma. Usually, I quickly strapped Elle into her car seat and, like many expatriate wives in this poor West African nation, tried to avoid the swirl of desperate children.

One afternoon, however, I saw something impossible to ignore. Unaware that one side of her tank top had slid off her tiny shoulder, a young girl standing in the crowd next to my car clutched a bottle of nuts under one arm and waved to me with the other, revealing a long, wide scar where a small nipple or budding breast should have been.

My eyes darted from the girl's missing breast to her big brown eyes and back to her chest. She disappeared in the distance as I drove away. The encounter revealed to me that a Cameroonian tradition I had heard vague whispers about might actually exist: breast ironing, in which women flatten adolescent girls' developing breasts, intending to protect the girls from the dangers of sex, consensual or otherwise.

The phenomenon gained some international attention in 2006, thanks to a campaign by a nonprofit organization. Since then, the State Department has included breast ironing in its annual reports on human rights abroad. But despite the increased attention, the practice persists. It affects as many as one in four girls, according to local health activists. Some mothers massage hot grinding-stones into their daughters' chests, while others pound the tissue with heated plantain peels. Sometimes, women rub kerosene or medicinal herbs on adolescent breasts.

To understand what would drive a mother to press a hot stone into her daughter's chest, I talked to local women, girls, physicians and community organizers. Despite the pain and fear, many of the women and girls involved in breast ironing considered it a normal treatment for early breast development. Mothers told me they forcibly try to eliminate signs of puberty to protect their preteen girls from HIV and pregnancy. One mother explained that she did it out of love.

Elle and I moved to Douala from Alexandria in January 2009 to join my husband, Brian, who had spent more than two years working there and traveling back and forth to see us. I had first stumbled on the subject of breast ironing in 2006, and once we settled there I wanted to know if the practice was still a reality of life. The seemingly barbaric treatment sounded like a close cousin to female genital mutilation, which, although prevalent in other African countries, is rare in Cameroon, according to activists. Both traditions purport to preserve innocence, but those familiar with breast ironing explain that it evolved to counteract a teen-pregnancy problem.

I began looking into the practice by asking local women around Brian's office what they knew. Most of them responded with blank stares. When I asked Elle's babysitter, she became uncomfortable, clicking her tongue and shaking her head. She said she had never heard of it. A few weeks later, however, she confided that she had a cousin whose breasts had been ironed. Slowly, other women opened up, too, revealing not only the methods but also the purpose -- keeping young girls chaste.

In Cameroon, being young and pregnant is not uncommon. Additionally, an estimated 30 percent of women have unwanted pregnancies, according to local health-care workers.

Caroline Nkeih, a veterinarian and mother of four, said she knows two families with daughters who became pregnant at 12. For this reason, in her mind the merits of breast ironing outweigh any physical or emotional consequences. One afternoon at her home in the Bonaberi district of Douala, Nkeih explained why she ironed her daughter Endam's breasts two years earlier, when she was just 10 years old. "Boys can start looking at the girls, when their breasts appear. At 12 years old, they are still children, but the boys see the breasts," she said. She explained that if a girl develops at age 8 or 9, many mothers think it's necessary to "press the breasts."

Nkeih said she warmed a long wooden pestle over her gas stove and rubbed each of Endam's breasts for five minutes. She said she treated Endam twice before the breasts retreated, only to reappear a year later.

Serges Moukam has an ob-gyn practice in Douala and knows well the "poverty perpetuating" problem of teen pregnancy. Promiscuity and rape both factor into the high teen pregnancy rate, and breast ironing, Moukam said, prevents neither. In an interview in his cramped office, he said pregnant girls ages 12 to 17 make up 25 to 30 percent of his patients. "It's very rare to see a 13-year-old girl who is still a virgin," he said.

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