Breast ironing: another form of female mutilation

In Cameroon, parents use various methods to delay the sexual development of teenagers. Some massage the developing breasts of young girls, a technique also known as the “repassage des seins”, or the ironing of breasts.

By Anne Mireille Nzouankeu, Yaoundé

Gisèle Nga knows more than most people about breast ironing. At the age of 10, her mother used to massage her chest with a hot stone. “Every evening, my mother used to heat a stone in boiling water which she would then press against my breasts. The stone was so hot that she had to use a thick piece of cloth to handle it”, she recalls.

Delaying sexual activity
There are many cases like that of Gisèle in Cameroon. In 2010, a survey revealed that, on average, 24% of the country’s teenagers had undergone breast ironing. This age old Cameroonian tradition is rarely discussed in public, as it is considered taboo just like anything else related to sexuality.

The practice of ironing is intended to halt breast development in order to make the teenage girl look younger. Many parents fear that their daughters will fall pregnant as soon as their breasts develop and therefore drop out of school. “As soon as a young girl develops breasts, she becomes attractive to men and if she gets pregnant, she won’t be able to continue with her studies”, explains Madeleine Nga, Gisèle’s mother.

Health problems
According to Dr Nzhié from the Yaoundé Central Hospital, breast ironing can also have negative psychological effects on the victims, such as body hang-ups, personality disorders and sexual frustrations.

On a physical level, the ironing of breasts causes burns, sometimes with permanent scars. “Massaging the breasts of young girls can also lead to the development of blains, cysts, breast infections and even cancer”, explains Dr Nzhié. In some cases, the total disappearance of the breast or a dissymmetry (with one breast larger than the other) has been observed.

Reproductive health
Yet this drastic measure does not necessarily prevent sexual activity amongst young girls. “There are many girls in our association who got pregnant at an early age despite the absence of breasts”, explains Sarah Ako, Communications Officer at an association for young mothers.

A growing number of charities such as the National Network of Aunties’ Associations (RENATA), are now launching campaigns to educate mothers about the importance of sex education rather than breast ironing to prevent teenage pregnancies. In time it is hoped that girls like Gisèle be saved from the physical and psychological effects of this radical practice.

Breast ironing in Africa

Breast ironing is a traditional practice in West Africa. According to the German Development Agency, GTZ, one in four teenagers are subjected to the practice in Cameroon but it is also found in countries in West and Central Africa including Chad, Togo, Benin and Guinea-Conakry.

A propos nzouankeu

Bonjour Je suis Anne Mireille Nzouankeu, journaliste camerounaise. Je m'intéresse aux questions de développement, droits de l'homme, environnement et santé. Je suis lauréate de plusieurs prix journalistiques parmi lesquels -3ème prix Afrique du Lorenzo Natali awards 2011, le plus prestigieux prix journalistique dans le domaine des droits de l'Homme -Finaliste du Dabra 2011, un prix international qui récompense les meilleurs journalistes africains dans le domaine de l'économie -Lauréate du projet Twenty Ten, une collaboration entre World Press Photo, FreeVoice, Africa Media Online et Lokaalmondiaal soutenue financièrement par la Dutch Postcode Lottery. Ce projet a permis à plus d’une centaine de journalistes africains originaires de 34 pays de rédiger des articles en profondeur sur le football africain et sur l’impact de la Coupe du Monde 2010 sur le continent.
Cet article a été publié dans Droits de l'Homme, Société. Ajoutez ce permalien à vos favoris.

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