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Saturday 25 October  
Stones used for breast ironing
Yaoundé, Cameroon
Yaoundé, Cameroon

Breast ironing: another form of female mutilation

Published on : 22 August 2011 - 2:20pm | By RNW Africa Desk (Photo:Flickr/ Suzette Pauwels)
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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.

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.

Health problems
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.

Reproductive health
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.

The first of a two part series about breast ironing. The second installment from DRC will be published tomorrow.

Have a look at this video from Current TV:


Anonymous 25 April 2013 - 4:16pm / usa

africa needs to put the rapist's in jail

Anonymous 20 October 2012 - 1:11pm

Amazing how we still think that we have the right to rule the world in this weird form of neo-kolonialism. We want to teach all people in the world how to live, what to do and what not to do. Yet we are scared to death that other people like muslims would do the same to us. Or that even the European Union would impose things upon us.
I never knew about this practise and I surely feel sorry for the little girls it involves, but I strongly feel that this is an issue for countries like the Cameroons to resolve, not for us to interfere about. We just don't have the right to rule the entire world according to what our norms and values happen to be today.

Anonymous 22 August 2011 - 4:39pm

savage people savage practice, not to mention pedophiles polygamy, bride price and incest , ie frank biya born of incest . and all you can do is waste tax payers money to prosecute gay people . lets start with the presidents own tribe , end the incest and pedophillia in the bulu and ewondo tribe.

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