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.
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.
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.