A mother will do anything to keep her children safe… Even if it hurts them.
A hammer glows red hot in the hearth. A girl sits in a corner, terrified of what’s to come. Picking the hammer up, a mother asks the girl to take off the garments covering her breasts. A sizzling noise is heard, and the smell of burning flesh engulfs the room. Her breasts are blistered; but they both hope this will save the child from an even worse fate.
It’s as painful as it sounds, but it’s not torture. It’s akin to child abuse, but the mother is not a monster. Breast ironing is not done out of spite, but out of love and a deep desire to stop men from raping girls who have just hit puberty.
The severity of the practice ranges from region to region and from household to household. Some mothers use hot leaves to massage and press the breast, while others use a searing hot grinding stone to crush the budding gland.
It’s a sad reality that few of us have ever given much thought to, but for the women of Cameroon, breast ironing is a growing epidemic that is forcing them to mutilate their daughters out of sheer desperation.
And it’s not just one girl here and there, either. It’s assumed that as much as 53% of the female population in Cameroon has undergone breast ironing, and the list of other nations where this practice has been reported includes Kenya, Togo, Zimbabwe, the Ivory Coast and even Britain.
Unfortunately, breast ironing doesn’t often provide these girls with the security they were hoping to get. In fact, sexual harassment, rape and early pregnancy are still as rife. What’s worse is that experts believe that breast ironing can have life-long repercussions on the girls that go beyond the aesthetic tissue damage and scarring.
While no medical studies have actually been undertaken on the effects of the practice, it is believed that it can lead to breast cancer, to the formation of abscesses and cysts, cause complications with breastfeeding and, quite understandably, lead to depression.
The saddest part of breast ironing however, remains the reason behind it. This is different to female genital mutilation. It’s not there to repress women or to make them more desirable to men. It aims to liberate them from pregnancies so early on in their puberty that are more likely to end in their death. It aims to stop men assuming that these children are ready to mate, and thus raping them.
As the practice becomes ever more documented, countries have started banning it. But it’s just not as simple. The problem doesn’t stem from the mothers doing this, but from the fear they live in.
Had you ever heard about breast ironing before? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.