The message of Africans being proud with their cultures and practices sounds a very noble one. Actually, it is. But then in line with some of the progressive ideas propounded by the ideals of modernity, there are some cultures and practices which are now an indictment on the general well-being and welfare of people. It is these practices that are regularly called into question, as they somehow, in a form, perpetuate injustice.
This is the case with the breast ironing practice. It is an archaic practice that is still performed especially in Cameroon. Breast ironing is a traditional practice that involves the use hard or heated objects like a wooden pestle or scalding grinding stones to stop or slow the development of breasts in young girls, supposedly to "protect them from sexual harassment, rape and early pregnancy". One gets the impression that the practice is done for the good of the girls, but in essence, the practice is a violation on girls.
There are practices which over the years have cause a lot of uproar and have gained international recognition such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). These have called for collective efforts in fighting them. FGM is a façade, for it is done in the name of ensuring cleanliness and better marriage prospects, prevent promiscuity and preserve virginity. While FGM is clearly horrific, breast ironing is equally horrific too. Because in essence, breast ironing is just related to gender-based violence.
In promoting some vague concepts such as protecting the girl from sexual harassment and rape, preventing early pregnancy (so that the family name is not tarnished), breast ironing becomes rampant and an unending practice which is hard to combat. Another reason for breast ironing is to allow the girl to pursue her education than to be forced into early marriages. These are high-sounding values, but breast ironing remains an infringement on the will of the girls. This is all carried out by the mother.
It is not only rife in Cameroon, but it has also been reported across West and Central Africa, in Benin, Chad, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Kenya, Togo and lower down in Zimbabwe. It is surprising that such an archaic practice still has a place in a modern African society. Breast ironing in recent times has been accredited to the earlier onset of puberty, caused by dietary improvements in Cameroon over the last 50 years.
Try imagine being a young girl in Cameroon and some of the parts mentioned, and hot objects are forced on you so that “you look less womanly so as to deter unwanted male attention”. Utterly horrific. The statistics do not tell a good story. Half of Cameroonian girls who develop under the age of nine have their breasts ironed, and 38% of those who develop under the age of 11. According to a 2011 German development agency GIZ report, one out of every 10 Cameroonian girls has been subjected to breast ironing.
Breast ironing is very clandestine by nature. It is that aspect which makes it difficult to mitigate. It is a well-guarded secret between the mother and the daughter. Shockingly, the father is unaware of the practice and because the girl thinks it is being done for her good, she masters her silence and the phenomenon becomes an unending cycle. Where barbaric tools such as stones and hammers are used, the rich choose to use an elastic belt to compress the developing breasts, thus preventing them from growing.
On many facets, breast ironing is simply wrong. The girl does not have control over her body. It is a fundamental right stripped away from the girl. The practice of breast ironing is a painful one to the girl. Although there have not been some major medical researches into the health effects of the practice, it can cause tissue damage and medical experts warn it might contribute to breast cancer, cysts, depression, and perhaps interfere with breastfeeding later in life. One shudders if they really ponder on this.
These are just some of the less-spoken forms of gender-based violence, but it is clear here that breast ironing has some grave consequences. More awareness and information dissemination needs to be effected in order to fight such a menace. Girls must not clutch to their silence when they are mutilated and tortured all in the name of tradition. What’s wrong is just wrong.