The Fight Against Breast Ironing


As last month was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, ‘boobs’ have recently become a hot topic, and many women are being reminded about the dangers of breast cancer and how to recognise the warning signs. However, for some women, the risk of getting breast cancer is only the tip of the iceberg where breast problems are concerned. These women, and more poignantly girls, are those who have been subjected to breast ironing, a form of female mutilation that originated in Cameroon and has recently moved to here in the UK.

So what exactly is breast ironing? Breast ironing involves massaging or pressing the breasts of adolescent girls, usually between the ages of 11 and 15, with a searing hot piece of wood or stone in order to suppress or reverse the development of their breasts. The procedure is incredibly painful and traumatic for the child and alarmingly it is predominately carried out by the child’s mother. The reasoning behind this form of bodily mutilation is that by removing the girl’s breasts it will protect the girl from sexual harassment and possible teenage pregnancy in places where breasts are perceived as a sign that a girl has reached an age of sexual maturity.  One mother interviewed by IPS describes her opinion on the matter, a view which is common amongst Cameroonian mothers: "So long as it will not kill the girl, I will prefer the breasts to be deformed and have her go through her education without an unwanted pregnancy or deadly HIV virus". There are many dangerous side effects which can occur as a result of breast ironing including cancer, abscesses, tissue damage, infections and long term disappearance of one or both of the breasts. The psychological damage it has on the girl should not be underestimated either. Brenda Mahop, who underwent the procedure as a child describes her experience as distressing: “my aunt and my mother pounded my chest everyday when I was barely 10 years old. I cried endlessly”. What makes the ordeal even worse is that often the mother’s attempts to protect their children from sexual advances by removing their breasts prove to be futile. Despite this, it is believed that around 3.8 million female teenagers are at risk of being subjected to the barbaric procedure.

How can it be stopped?  CAME Women and Girls Development Organisation is trying to re-educate communities in Cameroon and around the world about sexual health and the dangers of breast ironing. Alarmingly some girls are convinced into believing that the procedure is right and try to inflict it upon themselves. In a recent survey CAME and GTZ, a health organisation, found that 41% of mothers questioned in Cameroon agreed with breast ironing. Recently there has been a push to criminalise the procedure in an attempt to prevent it. Women in Alternative Action, has put forward petitions to the Cameroonian parliaments that ask for a 10 year prison sentence for anyone found to be practicing breast ironing along with sex education for women. Furthermore, what is coming to light is that this procedure is also being carried out here in the UK and unlike female circumcision it is not illegal. CAME are calling on the UK government to make breast ironing illegal too in the hopes that this will raise awareness and stop this mutilation of young and vulnerable girls.

What can you do? Breast Ironing is not a widely recognised problem, especially here in the UK. By raising awareness about this abuse you can help support the campaigns that are trying to prevent it. The girls who are subjected to this abuse are unlikely to report their own mothers to authorities and so they need help from people who have the ability to put their case forward for them.


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