And a well kept secret over generations of women. Thankfully, victims of breast ironing/ flattening are now coming forward to speak about their experience so as to create awareness about it and for rallying to put an end to this inhuman practice which, according to the United Nations Population Fund(UNFPA) is one of the five under-reported crimes relating to gender-based violence. The others are “bridenapping” in Central Asia, the epidemic of traumatic fistula in Africa, femicide of women in Central America and child marriage.
The issue came to the fore when Leyla Hussein, a Somali psychotherapist and social activist now based in the UK tweeted about it, “Why everyone should know about breast ironing”. She blogged for Cosmopolitan regarding this practice.
“Breast ironing is when a hot iron or stone is used to burn or compress the breast tissue. Destroying a woman’s or girl’s breasts in this way can take anything from a couple of days to a few weeks. The words ‘culture,’ ‘tradition’ or ‘religion’ might come up when trying to explain this absurdly harmful practice, but as in the case of Female Genital Mutilation, these words are only thinly veiled excuses.”- Leyla
Breast ironing is the brutal flattening of a young girl’s developing chest to “protect her from rape and sexual harassment”. It is believed that if the breasts are flattened, the girls would be less feminine, and less attractive to men, preserved from rapes or pre-marital sexual activities and teenage pregnancies, and thus be able to complete their education.
This is absurd logic because despite breast ironing girls are raped and they become pregnant. In fact, ironing the chest with spatula, stones or hammer heated over coal in the effort to make the breasts “disappear” perpetuate various physical and psychological damages on the girls who are subjected to it, in 58% of the cases, by their own mothers. Often, but not always, the father remains completely unaware of it. Rich families prefer to use an elastic belt to press the small paps to prevent them from growing.
Young girls from 11 to 15 years of age are exposed to numerous health problems such as cancer, abscesses, itching, and discharge of milk, infection, dissymmetry of the breasts, cysts, breast infections, severe fever, tissue damage and even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts. They feel as if their chests are (literally) on fire. In a number of cases, when these girls bear a child, they are unable to produce milk and then bitten by “driver ants” in an effort to swell the breasts and produce milk. No milk is produced.
Needless to say, this procedure is extremely painful and violates a girl’s physical integrity. The teenagers are so traumatized that sometimes they do not want anyone to touch their breasts for the rest of their lives. Besides, some have confessed to being ashamed of their flattened chest which makes them look like boys. It destroys their confidence and their social and psychological well-being.
According to an estimate by the UN, 3.8 million young women are at risk of breast ironing in Central and West Africa. It is a widespread practice in Cameroon. Other places that may be at risk include Nigeria, the Republic of Guinea, Togo and Côte d’Ivoire.
Since it is perceived that it is for the “safety” of young women, they keep quiet about it which further perpetuates this violence. Lyela opines that “it is ‘absurd’ that women’s bodies are not ‘considered safe in their natural states’.” Men should be held responsible for not controlling their urges, not rape survivors.
Women who are now campaigning against breast ironing try to educate the girls by asserting that breasts are created by God and ironing them is dangerous. They believe that education is the only way to put an end to this barbaric practice. They also assert the importance of sex education as a guarantee against teenage sexual activities and pregnancies rather than breast ironing. If girls are taught about their bodies at the onset of puberty, they will be able to take care of their bodies better.
Some organizations which are working for awareness against breast ironing are London-based charity Women’s and Girl’s Development Organisation (Cawogido), and the Association of Aunties, a national network in Cameroon that promotes sexual dialogue. Often they are short of sponsors which make it difficult to work at the scale they would like to. You can visit their websites using the link given below: