Has the Cameroonian custom of ‘breast-ironing’ been imported to Britain?

I RECENTLY read an article in The Independent which not only shocked me, but which saddened me too. ‘Breast ironing’ (also known as breast flattening’) is a cultural tradition, practised mostly in Cameroon, but also in West & Central Africa.

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This custom is the massaging and pounding of a young, pubescent girls breasts. Using hard or heated objects, the idea behind the actions is to prevent (or altogether stop!) the developing of the breasts, therefore preventing sexual advances on them from males.

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“Research by Cameroonian women’s organization RENATA and Germany’s Association for International Co-operation (GTZ) in 2006 found that 24 per cent of young girls and women in Cameroon had experienced it.”(www.newint.org/features)

Enough to make any ladies’ toes curl, these girls, aged from as young as nine, go through this, er, experience for what their mothers claim are worthwhile reasons. Using heated pestles, spatulas, leaves and other pain-inducing utensils (pictured above), mothers believe their actions are actually benefitting their daughters.

In Cameroon, boys and men believe that when a girl develops breasts, it means that she’s ready to be sexually active, and even married. So, the customs is claimed to prevent young girls from rape and sexual harassment as well as early pregnancy, as they wont look old enough to engage in sexual relations.

Despite ‘good intentions’ perhaps, young girls have been experiencing this mutilation for a long period of time, and there are fears that through Cameroon diaspora in Britain, the custom may have jumped the Channel and is happening here. Although there have been no convictions, police services are aware of the cultures presence in the UK.

So is this just another form of child cruelty, sharing the same boat as female genital mutilation (FGM)? Throughout history, young Cameroonian girls have grown up with this custom, seeing their older cousins and sisters going through it, and so has it just become a ‘normal’ rite of passage on the African continent?

“The UN has identified breast ironing as one of five forgotten crimes against women and estimates that some 3.8 million teenagers are affected. As well as being painful, it exposes girls to health problems including abscesses, cysts, infection, tissue damage and even the disappearance of one or both breasts.” (The Independent)

Personally, this issue seems a harmful, enormously emotionally scarring and dangerous tradition, which simply doesn’t have a place in modern society; especially here in Britain. However, perhaps my positionality on the subject leads me to forget that this is a female culturally accepted custom in Cameroon, and is something which has been so for many many generations.
When we consider the fact that average age of rape victims is 15, perhaps this custom seems a much welcome alternative?

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But then again, why can young Cameroonians not be taught the details of safe sex and relationships?

“Georgette Taku, Programme Officer at RENATA, says it began the first campaign to raise awareness of breast ironing in 2006. ‘Before this, people did not know about the consequences; they just thought it was a means of helping the girl erase the signs of puberty and avoid the trap of early pregnancy,’ she says.” (www.newint.org/features)

Georgette goes on to explain that she thinks this dramatic action is a response to the fact that talking to children in Cameroon about safe sex is an extremely taboo subject. She also believes it would be beneficial to pass a law and make arrests of people found guilty of this, as there is currently not even any relevent legislation to the custom.

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Gender Danger, an organization campaigning against breast ironing, was set up and founded by Chi Yvonne Leina (pictured above), a Cameroonian activist and journalist. Following its inception last year, Chi’s campaign has spoken to more than 200,000 women, explaining the importance of sex and relationship advice for their daughters, and why breast flattening is not the way to protect them.

Personally, I don’t see this as any different to the Mauritanian Fat Farms, female genital mutilation or any other child abuse. The difference is the culture, which makes the debate tricky. Regardless of culture, custom or tradition, if children are having pain inflicted on them, it’s no form of protection.

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