According to a report by the Borgen Project, over 3.8 million girls are affected by the practise of breast ironing. This custom is most prevalent in Cameroon in Central Africa, where at least 1 in 4 girls in Cameroon have undergone the brutal process asserts an article published by UN Women in 2013.
This practise involves the hammering of young girls’ breasts with weapons such as heated rocks, spatulas, and hammers in order to delay or impede development. Although this article was published in 2013, it was not until several weeks ago that the practise gained attention in Europe, when the Guardian revealed that there have been “dozens of recent cases” in the UK.
As well as Cameroon, breast ironing is also happening in Benin, Chad, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Kenya, Togo, and Zimbabwe. The practise is usually done on girls on the brink of puberty, by close family members such as mothers or grandmothers. The practise is intended to protect young girls from sexual harassment and rape. It is thought that if a young girl undergoes the ironing, she will appear less attractive to older men, and be more inclined to pursue education.
In the same vein of thought, it is believed that the risk of early pregnancy or child marriage is decreased for a child who has undergone breast ironing. This has shown to be utterly ineffective as a UNICEF report, cited in All Africa, has indicated that since the practise took off approximately 50 years ago, there has been no decrease in incidents of teenage rape or pregnancy. Furthermore, UNICEF have cited that in Cameroon today 13% of girls are married by the age of 15, and 38% by 18.
In the same article, All Africa have questioned the reasons that such a practise could take off in a modern African country. One of the possibilities listed is that the dietary improvements in Cameroon in the past 50 years have caused an earlier onset of puberty.
To date, there has not been sufficient research into the long-term consequences of breast ironing. Among the effects that are evident however, are difficulty breastfeeding, breast cancer, physical defects, and severe trauma.
Activist Chi Yvonne Leina has said that secrecy and silence are what perpetuates this ritual. Her collective, Gender Danger, is fighting to break this silence and make the dangers of breast ironing clear around the world.
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Image courtesy of Emma Line via Flickr