Pubescent Cameroonian girls are being forced to undergo mutilation of their budding breasts in a desperate bid to protect them from sexual predators.
The Catholic Women’s Association and the Christian Women's Fellowship group of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon are intensifying efforts to promote sex education to prevent more draconian action against teen pregnancy: breast ironing.
In a society where girls are easily seduced or married off at 13, the barbaric practice is happening in the secrecy of bedrooms and kitchens in a bid to avert premature male attention.
Mothers still mutilate their daughter’s budding breasts to give them a chance to study in a country where the role of women is beginning to change, thanks to increasing opportunities.
And yet, so far United Nations agencies have taken no decisive action to stop a practice they are clearly monitoring.
According to the UN's own Population Fund, 3.8million girls out of a total population of 19,711,291 undergo breast ironing each year in Cameroon, and one in every four girls in the country is a victim.
Says one source: ‘The culture of silence fuels the practice, now that women have seen the benefits of educating their girl children.
‘They are ready to do anything to prevent them from falling pregnant prematurely, or from an early marriage that will brutally curtail all hopes of their daughters` education.’
According to the United Nations Population Fund the practice of breast ironing is more prevalent in the Christian and animist south of Cameroon (20-50%) than in the Muslim north, where only ten per cent of girls, who are generally married at puberty, are affected.
‘Christian mothers are motivated by the desire to see their daughters educated and wedded in church as virgins’, says a source.
Breast-ironing is agonizing – a form of mutilation using hammers, hot stones, rice pounders, knives, even hot banana skins (see picture) - that not only has negative health effects, but has proven to be futile in deterring teenage sexual activity, since many girls end up disfigured and pregnant.
The UN Population Fund reveals that breast ironing exposes girls to numerous health problems such as abscesses, cysts, itching, and discharges. There can be permanent damage to milk ducts, infection, and dissymmetry of the breasts, breast infections, severe fever, and even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts.
Victims end up with marks, wrinkles and black spots on their breast. One victim said she developed breast cancer as a result of mutilation and had to undergo a mastectomy.
She said her mother viewed the cancer as a spell and resorted to more intense ironing sessions using a knife which had been heated in the fire to press them.
Cameroonians still prefer to spend their resources on educating male children while keeping the girls at home for domestic chores.
Educating the girl child will help eradicate barbaric acts like breast ironing in Cameroon. If young girls are encouraged to break the silence by exposing the secret, it will be difficult for this culture to thrive. So far there has been no major action by the UN to eradicate this practice in Cameroon.
The effects of a recent nationwide campaign by the NGO Association of Aunties (Réseau National des Associations de Tantines, or RENATA) run by victims of breast ironing are yet to be established.
Chi Yvonne Leina is a freelance broadcaster and journalist based in Cameroon, specializing in health and religion. For four years she worked as a reporter/on-air presenter at Equinoxe Television, Cameroon’s leading private TV and radio channel. In addition she has served as editor of the environmental magazine Cameroon Birdline. Her mother is President of Christian Women’s Fellowship of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon.