Trigger warning: descriptions of violence towards women, including body mutilation.
I was caught completely off-guard when reading the New Internationalist’s article about breast ironing. Haven’t heard of it? Neither had I, and I consider myself somewhat educated about various forms of violence towards women. Breast ironing is as horrible as it sounds, but throughout Cameroon it is a common practice. When a young girl’s breasts begin developing, a close female relative (often the mother or grandmother) will “iron” the budding girl with a heated tool (like a pestle). The goal is to stop the breasts from developing in order to protect the girl from male attention and from engaging in sexual activity (premarital pregnancy is greatly feared). It is estimated that at least 24% of women in Cameroon have experienced breast ironing, and from personal accounts, it has indeed damaged these women. Most are ashamed of their breasts; some have developed cysts, breast infections, fever, dissymmetry of the breasts, or have had complete disappearance of one or both breasts. All have to deal with the emotional toll.
I can only imagine. In a world where many women are told that if they are sexually abused it is their fault, these women went to the extreme to protect their children. Many mothers are motivated by the average age of rape, 15, or by fear that their daughters will be abused at school. Breast ironing is also practiced in more areas than just Cameroon: Nigeria, Togo, the Republic of Guinea, South Africa, and even Great Britain have all reported cases. But while this tradition holds strong, it doesn’t address the root cause of sexual abuse and early pregnancy.
Margaret Nyuydzewira, the founder of the CAME Women and Girls Development Organization (CAWODIGO), believes that educating people and raising awareness will help stop breast ironing. “I met a police officer who was telling me they arrested a woman in Birmingham who was doing breast ironing, and because nobody knew about it, they thought it was her culture and let her go. We cannot say it’s culture because it’s harm that is being done to a child.”
CAWODIGO is working hard to educate the communities of Cameroon about gender-based violence by giving workshops, health programs (including sex education), and even creating a skill farm where women can learn essentials that help them become self-sufficient.
To learn more about CAWODIGO, donate towards their cause, or learn more about breast ironing, visit their website here. There is also a conference September 17 in London.
Original article and Images via newint.org