Having a mammogram is a necessary, but somewhat painful experience that women endure to detect breast cancer. However, that process is nothing compared to breast ironing; a customary practice in some African countries that involves flattening the breasts with a hot stone in order to stunt development of breasts in young girls. This practice is more popular in African countries with larger Christian and Aminist populations such as Cameroon, Togo and Guinea. Former victims turned activists have teamed with others organizers committed to educating the community on the harmful nature of breast ironing in hopes to eradicate this procedure.
Older women administer breast ironing to their daughters, nieces, and other children at the request of their families. The mutilation is supposed to help deter young girls from becoming sexually active. Instead, as the breasts heal and the physical scars form, the emotional and psychological wounds are just beginning.
The U.S. State Department compiled a human rights report in 2011 on the Cameroon. The report attempted to explain the cultural motivation for stunting breast growth among adolescent girls. “The procedure was considered a way to delay a girl’s physical development, thus limiting the risk of sexual assault and teenage pregnancy,” the report states. “Girls as young as nine were subjected to the practice, which resulted in burns, deformities, and psychological problems.”
Activist Chi Yvonne Leina witnessed the brutal procedure by accident. Heading to her grandmother’s home like she routinely did after school, Leina approached and saw her grandmother performing what she later learned was breast ironing. The victim was her cousin.
“When I approached the hut I heard my cousin crying inside,” Leina reported to theGrio. “I was curious, so I peeped through a small crack in the door.”
Then, Leina witnessed the common practice. “I heard my cousin groaning and I saw my grandmother warming a small grinding stone. Grandma was using that small stone, which she warmed on the fire, to press my cousin’s breast, and was pressing hard on the breast, and she was crying.”
While breast ironing is intended to stop young women from becoming sexually active too soon, the practice has not had the intended affect. In fact, teenage pregnancy is on the rise in places like Cameroon where this mutilation is common. “Statistics confirm that in addition to being a human rights violation, the practice is ineffective in deterring pre-marital pregnancy,” according to a press release from the Friends of the United Nations Populations Fund (UNPFA). “One-third of unwanted pregnancies occur between the ages of 13 and 25, with more than half falling pregnant after their first sexual encounter.”
While there are not many practices comparable to breast ironing in the United States (U.S.), women are still subjected to body shaming in order to control our sexuality. During the 2012 presidential race, republican candidates across the country were working to repeal abortion rights, dismantle Planned Parenthood and limit women’s access to birth control. Again, while not on the same scale as breast ironing, any practice intended to strip women of their rights to govern their own bodies is wrong.
To an effort to expose breast ironing as an outdated and harmful custom, Leina formed the non-profit Gender Danger in Cameroon. The organization has already reached 15,000 women. If you’d like to learn more about how you can help the organization, visit www.genderdanger.com.