“Breast Ironing” in Cameroon

I had the honor of attending today’s CEDAW discussion on women in conflict & post-conflict situations. The room was packed with both UN experts and NGO representatives to kick off the Committee’s process of developing a general recommendation on the subject. Speakers with global experience in this matter spoke for three hours, addressing the myriad human rights violations women experience during times of conflict and during transitional and reconstruction periods.

During her speech, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women referenced a new report on the phenomenon of “breast ironing” in Cameroon. I decided to research this topic which led me to a Huffington Post article about the report, which was recently released by CurrentTV. Read on for the horrifying details:

Affecting one out of every four girls, the brutal practice of “breast ironing” is on the rise in the African country of Cameroon. The procedure — which involves the flattening of a young girl’s growing breasts with hot stones, coconut shells and other objects — is considered a way to curb the country’s staggering number of teenage pregnancies, particularly high in rural areas, as well as limit the risk of sexual assault.

According to a new report by CurrentTV, Cameroonian mothers believe breast ironing will protect their daughters from becoming pregnant and being assaulted in that it will postpone their development and men will not be enticed by their breasts. With dietary habits in the country improving, girls are beginning to hit puberty as young as 9, and are subject to the practice around at the same age.

Though only limited medical research has been done on the practice, Cameroonian women say breast ironing can lead to numerous physical issues, such as burns and deformations, not to mention psychological problems. The procedure has been compared to the custom of female circumcision/genital mutilation.

What I find particularly interesting (see: disgusting, disturbing) is that instead of addressing the root causes of violence against women or going after the perpetrators, innocent girls are being subjected to a torturous practice in a desperate attempt to avoid rapes. This is not to say that the women performing the breast “ironing” are at fault; rather, fault lies with a system in which sexual and gender based violence is systemic and justice remains out of reach for women.

It is frightening how far women feel they must go in order to avoid sexual assaults and predatory men. Unlike FGM, which is typically heralded as a cultural rite of passage worth celebrating, it seems clear to me that breast ironing is an act of panic and a last resort taken when justice fails the population it is meant to serve. It is vital that the international community voices its concerns at this practice — do your part and sign the petition calling for the cessation of breast ironing.

If you want to learn more about breast ironing, be sure to check out articles from The Washington Post, BBC News, IPS.

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Categories: Violence

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3 replies

  1. Thank you for this report, it’s very important and I agree with everything you’ve written *apart from* “. . .FGM, which is typically heralded as a cultural rite of passage worth celebrating” It is heralded as a living nightmare for the girls who are subjected to it. Thanks for your work.

  2. I have heard about this practice before and mind you, it is as gruesome as female genital mutilation and ancient Chinese footbinding.

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