Africa, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, Women's Health

RIGHTS-CAMEROON: An Unwelcome “Gift of God”

Sylvestre Tetchiada

YAOUNDE, Jun 13 2006 (IPS) - Josiane Matia, making her way along a school route in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé, is far less carefree than other 11-year-olds. Walking slowly, she complains of the pain caused by a breast band that her mother has forced her to wear for three months.

“Before this breast band, my mother used the grinding stone – heated in the fire – to massage my chest,” she told IPS.

“Every night my mother examines my chest (and) massages me, sometimes with the pestle,” Matia adds. All this is in a bid to reverse the development of the girl’s breasts, to prevent her becoming the object of male attention.

“Although I cry hard because of the pain, she tells me: ‘Endure, my daughter; you are young and there is no point in having breasts at your age’.”

This practice, referred to as “breast ironing”, occurs extensively in the 10 provinces of Cameroon. In an effort to prevent adolescent breasts from developing, implements such as grinding stones, pestles, ladles and spatulas are heated, then used to massage the chests of girls. Other approaches may also be resorted to.

According to the German Agency for Technical Co-operation (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit, GTZ), an international body owned by the German government, some 3.8 million teenagers are threatened with the practice. (The development agency conducted an investigation into the “ironing of breasts” in January.)

“In Cameroon, 24 percent of girls, about one girl in four, undergo the ‘ironing’ of breasts,” Flavien Ndonko, a doctor who works for GTZ, told IPS.

Ndonko says parents justify the traumatising practice by saying it is needed to prevent men from pursuing their daughters too soon, and to prevent early pregnancies that would tarnish the family name. Parents also say that they want their daughters to grow up and pursue their studies.

But, not only is “breast ironing” ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancies; it also has serious consequences for the health of girls.

“Beyond the pain and trauma caused by ‘breast ironing’,” says Marie Claire Eteki, a doctor at the health ministry, the practice “could lead to the appearance of certain illnesses, such as breast cancer, cysts (and) depression.”

Brenda Mahop, a first year law student at the University of Yaoundé II-Soa, is another of those who have been forced to undergo the practice.

“My aunt and my mother pounded my chest every day when I was barely 10 years old. I cried endlessly,” she told IPS.

Mahop now has heart problems, and questions whether her condition is related to these events.

Her experiences have prompted her to join a campaign launched by unwed mothers in Cameroon against the “ironing of breasts”. These mothers belong to 61 associations across the country that are united under the National Network of the Associations of Aunties (Réseau national des associations de tantines, RENATA). The fear and pain caused by the practice force certain girls to flee their homes – sometimes with disastrous consequences. Jeanine Efon, 23, told IPS that she left her parents’ home to take refuge with an uncle when she was 13. But this man and his wife also tried to carry out the practice, causing her to flee again. She then found herself with a neighbour who seemed to sympathise with her problems – only to rape her that same evening. Ariane Elouna tells a similar story. “Returning from school one afternoon…my aunt followed me into the room and asked ‘What is that you have there, on your chest?'” she told IPS.

Elouna’s mother heated the grinding stone and asked her to undress. “She then protected her hands, and started rubbing my breasts vigorously,” the teenager added.

“Not being able to endure the pain any longer, I fled the next day to our neighbour, and it was there that his son raped me and I fell pregnant.” Elouna is 15 now, and has a son of three months.

But despite the problems caused by the practice of “ironing breasts”, it has not yet been banned by authorities.

“The Ministry for the Promotion of Women and the Family encourages us in our efforts to make parents aware of the (dangers of) ‘ironing’ of breasts. But, I think this is insufficient, taking into account the expansion of the practice and its effect on our communities,” Bessem Ebanga, executive secretary of RENATA, told IPS.

“We want to encourage authorities to introduce a law in parliament to outlaw this abominable practice. Breasts are a gift of God,” she adds.

Eric Effemba, who works for the Ministry for the Promotion of Women and the Family, told IPS that his department supported the efforts of unwed mothers concerning “breast ironing” – and that it was working with civil society to come up with a law which would consign the practice to history.

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