INSP 11 April 2011
“Please God, make my breasts disappear.” Joyce Forghab used to pray the same line every night during the month she was suffering from breast ironing. The shocking practice, carried out by a quarter of mothers in Cameroon, is meant to reverse female sexual development. (2864 Words) - By Eva Fernández Ortiz
Joyce was only eight years old when the drama began. Her mother would take a flat stone and heat it over the fire for several minutes until it was burning. "She protected her hands because she knew it was really hot. She took it, pressed it against my breasts and massaged them really well," recalls Joyce, now 25 years old. "It was very, very painful… I had to run away from the house. It was horrible."
Joyce's experience is no exception in Cameroon. An estimated one in four girls suffers from the practice in their childhood. Breast ironing is a traditional ritual in which, by using heated and flat objects, a girl's growing breasts are pressed in order to suppress and reverse their development. The act is usually performed by a girl's mother or aunt. To iron breasts they mostly use a wooden pestle or a stone, other tools employed include coconut shells, grinding stones, ladles, spatulas and hammers; all carefully heated over burning coals.
"Breast ironing has existed as long as Cameroon has existed," says Sinou Tchana, Cameroonian gynaecologist and vice-president of the Cameroonian Association of Female Doctors. In the early nineties, when her association started touring the ten regions of Cameroon to find out what practices could have been affecting female sexuality, they were shocked by the prevalence of breast ironing in most parts of the country.
"We explained that it was not good, but the mothers and the aunts told us that it was normal for them that when the breasts are developing they have to iron them to avoid their growing. They did not see the dangers of what they were doing," explains Dr. Tchana.
Renata, a women's association in Cameroon, reported in 2006 that breast ironing rate was most prevalent in two Cameroonian areas: the Coast at 53 percent and the North-West, at 31 percent. Renata's study also showed that it was more common in the Christian and Animist South (30-50 percent) than in the Muslim North (10 percent). Although breast ironing is most widely practised in Cameroon, it also occurs in Guinea-Bissau, West and Central Africa, including Chad, Togo, Benin and Guinea-Conakry.
Doctor Tchana often comes across both victims and perpetrators of the ritual in her clinic. Often, mothers do not realise what they are doing to their daughters. She recalls one woman coming in to the practice about a year ago, begging for forgiveness: "Forgive me doctor, I was not measuring the pain, but when I burnt myself I realised the type of suffering my little girl had to endure", she cried. The woman was ironing her daughter's breast when she burnt her hand. That is why she had come to see the doctor.
"When they take the stone from the fire they start ironing one breast first. In the case of that girl, one was really, really destroyed; the other one was not as bad. But the result is the same. Now one breast is smaller than the other one," said Dr. Tchana.
Breast ironing leads to two main opposite effects on women's breasts. On one hand, it can reduce its size considerably, leaving girls flat-chested. Or, it provokes rather the opposite reaction: by destroying the breast tissue, the breast just becomes a bag of fat without any muscle or shape. This is what happened to Joyce.
"My breasts have collapsed because of breast ironing. It has nothing to do with giving birth, because before having my child I already had the problem. I cannot be without my bra; I need it all the time, even when I am sleeping or feeding my baby," she said.
Dr. Tchana clarifies: "Really small breasts usually are due to the fact that families used the right technique. This means the stones were not too warm and the breasts are ironed equally all over. On the contrary, when bad techniques are used -very hot stones and quick ironing- oversized breasts and burning are major consequences. In all cases, however, you have problems of reconstruction and it is very expensive because nobody now would pay for it."
"It was very, very painful… I had to run away from the house. It was horrible."
Apart from being painful and psychologically traumatic, breast ironing exposes girls to multiple health problems. According to many medical reports, it can lead to abscesses, itching, inability to breastfeed the babies, infection, deformity or disappearance of the breasts, cysts, tissue damage and even breast cancer.
"I had one girl who died of breast cancer aged 24. You can have breast cancer in the cases in which the ironing is so intense that it destructs all the breast tissue," explains Dr. Tchana.
With all the medical evidence present, why do a quarter of Cameroonian girls still have to experience the torturous practice? Ze Jeanne, a 57-year-old Cameroonian woman and mother of eight, clarifies her reasons. "When the breasts of a young girl start growing, any man can come to her and try to have sex with her so, in order to help the girls continue school, we have to do breast ironing," she says.
She sits calmly in an armchair in her house, twenty minutes from Yaoundé city centre. Her daughter Clarisse is lying in a sofa next to her. Ze explains that she ironed the breasts of all her daughters when they started developing too early.
"In her case," -says Ze pointing to Clarisse, "her breasts started growing at nine, so I was obliged to do breast ironing to her in order to stop it. I did not do it to destroy the breast, but to help the girl," she insists.
Breast ironing is justified by Cameroonian women for many reasons. Apart from being historically rooted in their culture, it is used to avoid sexual contact between young girls and boys. By preventing girls' bodies from the sign of emerging sexuality, mothers try to make sure that their girls remain virginal and pure and avoid them becoming visibly fertile women - and potential mothers.
Mothers are not completely unjustified in their fears. Early sexual encounters can lead these young teenagers to unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, possible rapes or the transmission of sexual diseases. Burning girls' emerging breasts to many mothers seems a far better option than the risk of the above. It is a measure born out of love and care for their daughters, they argue. But does it work?
Most of the young victims of breast ironing say the practice is extremely painful. And they insist that still does not prevent sexual attention.
"It is not the best way of avoiding pregnancies because after all, somebody like me can still get pregnant. I had a child before getting married, so in my case it did not help at all. For me it [sexual awareness] is all in the head. Once you get older, you think twice about the risks you are taking," says Joyce.
Mother Ze sees the matter differently. She believes breast ironing has saved her and her daughters from unwanted pregnancies by avoiding them looking womanly too early. "My daughters have accepted that breast ironing is part of our tradition. When the girl is still young, it is risky for her to let her breasts develop. It is risky for her future. If she would have an unwanted pregnancy at that age, things would be difficult for her later on."
Although Ze believes her youngest daughter Clarisse accepts breast ironing, the girl's reaction suggests something else. When Clarisse is asked whether or not she will do it to her daughter, she replies emphatically: "I would not do that to my child."
The taboo related to sexuality is huge and obvious throughout Cameroon. Many girls are having their breasts ironed not even knowing why. "At the age of nine, girls did not know about sex so I did not explain them anything. However, when they were eleven and started asking: 'Why did you do this to me when I was nine?' I gave them some explanations," says mother Ze.
Joyce, on the other hand, demanded an explanation from the first moment she had a burning stone on her chest. "My mum told me that I was too young to have breasts and if she allowed me to have them then men would come near me. She also said that I would not be able to grow tall", she recalls.
Joseph Ngondi, a 29-year-old Cameroonian man, came across breast ironing when he was 26. He was in a hotel room with his new girlfriend. It was their first night together. When she got topless, he saw that instead of breasts, she had two dark patches on her flat chest. He was shocked. "I started asking to myself what happened to that girl, I was even afraid, thinking in an illness which could have affected her", says Joseph, "The girl noticed my strange look at her breasts and decided to hide them. She felt ashamed."
He asked her what happened to her breasts. "Then she revealed me that her mother ironed her breasts when she was 11. It was not easy for the girl to decide to tell me that story."
Especially in cities, where breast ironing is performed as a contraceptive method rather than a tradition alone, many men remain unaware of the practice. Joseph was clueless about it, too: "It was only at that moment [with the girl] that I realised what breast ironing really was. Before that, I just used to hear about it, but without any explanation."
"Forgive me doctor, I was not measuring the pain, but when I burnt myself I realised the type of suffering my little girl had to endure."
Many Cameroonian mothers who perform the ritual as a contraceptive measure often do not talk about it with relatives. Georgette Taku, executive secretary of Renata's women's association, explains: "They hide it because sometimes there is no discussion in the family about sexual education. Plus, women are the ones supposed to take care of the children and, eventually, if the girl becomes pregnant, the mother is the one to blame." According to Ms. Taku, in many Cameroonian families when a young teenager becomes pregnant, the father can force both mother and daughter to leave the house.
On the other hand, in rural areas where breast ironing is performed as a ritual more than as a contraceptive method, men are completely aware of it. "There is nothing to hide. It is not a bad thing according to the tradition and everyone in the family should be present," says mother Ze.
Breast ironing victim Joyce agrees with this, and says some men in rural areas even perform the practice themselves: "Every man knows about it and if their wife has passed away, they are supposed to do it."
"Grandma wants to burn me"
"Mama, mama… Please, come! Grandma wants to burn me!" This is the desperate call that Dr. Tchana received from her daughter Kat in 1997. "She was 11 years old then and was spending her holidays in Bangangté, the village I come from. My mother-in-law is a very qualified midwife there and wanted to iron Kat's breasts. I will never forget my daughter's call, she was so afraid. I said to Kat: 'Do not worry, I am coming, just tell Grandma that you want Mama to be there when you are having breast ironing'."
It was a Friday, 7pm, and Dr. Tchana took her car and raced to the village. "My mother-in-law was very angry because my daughter had called me. I told her not to do it, 'I am a doctor, I know better than you', I said. She told me that she was a nurse and she also knew what she was doing. Finally, Kat's breast were not ironed, I would never have allowed it."
The geographical origins of breast ironing are unclear. While many Cameroonians claim that it is a tradition from the rural areas, other sources such as the German Technical Cooperation Agency (GTZ) reported in 2007 that it was more frequently practiced in cities than in villages.
It is been little more than a century since Cameroon developed cities such as Yaoundé, its political capital, founded in 1888; or Douala, its economic capital and the largest Cameroonian city. This might reinforce the 'rural origin' hypothesis. Plus, the fact that breast ironing is more publicly criticised in cities, might convey the perception that its practice is higher in urban areas.
Nevertheless, the 'city origin' argument also carries weight. Since Cameroonian girls' rate of studies is considerably higher in cities than in villages, mothers may well be more likely to practice of breast ironing so their daughters keep up with their studies without being burdened by an unwanted pregnancy.
Dr. Tchana says that it is practised both in cities and in rural areas, but argues the risk is higher in cities. "Because of the pain that breast ironing causes, many young girls run away from their houses. While in villages they would go to their aunt's, Chief's or neighbours' home, the city has more dangers outside."
Ironically, the practice this way can lead to more unwanted pregnancies. As Dr. Tchana explains: " Many of these [runaway] girls have nothing and live in their boyfriend's house. If he asks her for sex she feels she cannot say no... What else can they do?"
Unfortunately, breasts are not the only target for "ironing" in Cameroon. Belly ironing, also known as postpartum massaging, is another harmful traditional practice present in the country. According to Renata, it is even more widespread than breast ironing, being just as painful and also leaving women with horrible physical and psychic scars.
In belly ironing, a traditional broom steeped in boiling water is used to whip the belly of a woman who has just given birth. Then, a towel is soaked in boiling water to massage the different parts of the body and in some regions, the woman is asked to sit on a bucket of hot water so the vapour penetrates her vagina and uterus. Even this can cause burns, vaginal infections, cervix damage or scars, Cameroonian women accept it because the tradition says that it is very important to evacuate the remaining blood after delivering a baby.
"It is practically impossible not to notice that the massage is being done in the neighbourhood because the painful cry of the victim awakes the neighbours early in the morning," mentions Renata's guide about sexual health.
It is not unusual to walk around Yaoundé's neighbourhood and hear the desperate cry of a girl coming from a house. The anxiety felt by a foreigner thinking "What is going on in there?," "What is happening to that poor girl?" is in contrast with the apparent indifference shown by Cameroonians, who continue with their lives without paying any attention to those shouts.
A sign of sexual maturity
Traditional harmful practices against women are manifold across human history. They include tortures such as Chinese foot binding, rib-breaking corsets, female genital mutilation and the chastity belt of the Middle Ages. All shared a common purpose: to benefit men, either by assuring women's fidelity or by improving their beauty according to contemporary taste.
Breast ironing is different. Instead of trying to benefit men, this is one of the few practices that tortures women for their own "good" in a distorted effort by women on women to protect them from men by making them less desirable.
In understanding Cameroonian society, the significance of breasts and their symbolic value must be taken into account. "A girl can get married as soon as she starts having breasts," explains Renata's spokesperson Taku. "The breasts show that a girl is ready to have sex."
During her school days, Joyce was known as "Miss Lolo" alluding to her early growing breasts. "I felt very, very ashamed. I thought, 'If my parents are ironing my breasts at that age it means that I am not supposed to have them.' To have breasts was like a taboo, like something bad. So I used to walk putting my hand over my breast in order that people do not to see it. I was not feeling free."
Ze´s mother did it to her, Ze did it to her daughters and she has no doubt that one day she will do it to her granddaughters, too. She doesn't feel she owes anyone an explanation: "Most of us Bantu people do it as a tradition, without any specific explanation. You just have to accept it like that." This is how most of Cameroonian girls are expected to deal with breast ironing. Accepting it and, as Joyce did, praying God to make their breasts disappear.
[SIDEBAR] Cameroon vs. Britain
Cultural norms and education are key to society's behaviour and its attitude towards women's rights and sexual development. While Cameroonian Joyce felt ashamed of having breasts being just a young teenager, in April 2010 the Irish clothing retailer Primark was forced to stop stocking padded bikinis for seven-year-old girls. The brand became the focus of public disapproval and politicians such as the UK's Prime Minister David Cameron stated that those products were a "completely disgraceful example of premature sexualisation." Whereas in many Western countries the pressure is on girls to have artificially large breasts, in Cameroon breast ironing is designed to achieve the exact opposite.