Victoria Oseyande Ikearu-Udoh
Globally, female genital mutilation, or cutting, which is one of the many harmful cultural practices against the girl child, has witness tremendous awareness, outcries and measures established to eliminate the practice in all regions and countries of the world.
Unfortunately, breast ironing, though still practiced, has remained unknown to many. Breast Ironing, also known as breast flattening, is a cultural practice of flattening or crushing the breast of an adolescent girl to disguise the signs of development.
This ritual is mostly performed on the breast of the young adolescent between the ages of 10 to 19 by her mother through the use of a hard or heated object to flatten the breast, stop the breast from developing, or better still make them disappear. It can also be performed by any close female relative of the girl like the grandmother, aunty, sister, etc.
According to the perpetrators of this practice, the goal of this destructive female breast mutilation is to delay the girl’s development thus making them unattractive and less desirable to the opposite sex. This is aimed at preventing them from being sexually active, thus protecting her from rape, teenage pregnancy and other forms of sexual activity.
Breast ironing ranges from using heated leaves to massage and knead the breasts, to the use of baked grinding stone to crush the girls’ budding breasts. There are however two widely used methods in carrying out this inhumane practice. The first involves heating tools like metal, sticks, heavy stone, pestles, spatulas, spoons, rocks, grinding stones, hot coconut shells, leaves, and hammers over hot charcoal fire, and then pressed on the young breasts, with the aim of flattening them or stunting their growth.
The heat from the tools is required to melt the fat on the breasts, so as to stop them from growing or bulging. The second involves wrapping the girl’s chest very tightly with an elastic bandage overnight for a long time; sometimes as long as a year. This latter method is less preferred as it makes the girl uncomfortable for a long time.
Breast ironing is mostly practiced in Cameroon and some African countries like, Central Africa Republic, Benin, Chad, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Kenya, Nigeria, Togo and Zimbabwe. According to a report by the United Nations, breast ironing affects about 3.8 million women around the world, with Cameroon having the highest number of cases in the world.
In spite of this, Cameroon also regrettably has one of the world’s highest rape incidences with almost half a million rape cases recorded yearly (this excludes cases not reported as a result of stigmatization).
Unfortunately, contrary to the beliefs of the perpetrators of this practice, breast ironing has not in any way prevented the young adolescent from being sexually active, nor has it stopped them from becoming victims of sexual violence or in any way prevented teenage pregnancy.
Several reports have shown examples of girls who experienced breast ironing but still got pregnant in their teens. A typical example is the story of Susan (pseudonym), who according to a study by Thomson Reuters Foundation, started developing breast at age 10 and thus was becoming very attractive.
In an attempt to protect her from the opposite sex (both young and old), her mother performed the breast ironing ritual on her and thus made the breast disappeared and unattractive. Three years later, Susan was raped by her uncle. At 14 she became very sexually active; at 16 she became pregnant and gave birth to her first child.
The health consequences of breast ironing are enormous. Although there are no extensive studies on breast ironing at the moment, medical expert are of the opinion that it can be detrimental to the health of the young adolescent even up to her old age. Some of these health hazards include breast tissue damage, breast cancer, cysts, lesions, itching, trauma, depression, breast infections, formation of abscesses, inability to produce breast milk later in life, malformed breasts and the eradication of one or both breasts.
According to one of such girls, breast ironing is extremely painful and more painful than childbirth.
In December 2015, a new report revealed that some mothers from neighbouring countries to Nigeria have intensified the practice of breast ironing for their young girls in order to protect them from being abducted, raped or harmed by the Nigeria terror group, Boko Haram.
Although this practice was not common in Nigeria, there are however reports that it is being practiced in some parts of the country. With child violations, rape cases, teen pregnancies, girls’ abductions, etc. on the rise, this may not be far from the truth.
Parents and relevant authorities should know that breast ironing is a poor alternative to sex education and does not in any way curb teenage sex or pregnancy. Rather it is an inhumane practice that brings about physical and emotional torture.
It is a form of child abuse, gender inequality and a deformation of the girl child. Mothers, nannies, aunties, grand mothers, fathers, relevant government agencies, Human Rights Commissions, and NGOs need to exercise vigilance and take necessary actions against breast ironing in its entire ramification. It should not be allowed to strive nor spread in Nigeria.
Victoria Oseyande Ikearu-Udoh is a development worker with a passion for gender and people-centred issues. She can be reached via [email protected].