Breast ironing is the pounding and massaging of a pubescent girl's breasts using heated objects, in an attempt to make them stop developing or disappear. It is typically carried out by the girl's mother in an attempt to protect the girl from sexual harassment and rape, to prevent early pregnancy that would tarnish the family name, or to allow the girl to pursue education rather than be forced into early marriage. It is mostly practiced in parts of Cameroon, where boys and men may think that girls whose breasts have begun to grow are ripe for sex. The most widely used implement for breast ironing is a wooden pestle normally used for pounding tubers. Other tools used include bananas, coconut shells, grinding stones, ladles, spatulas, and hammers heated over coals.
Breast ironing is common in all ten regions of Cameroon. A survey by the German development agency GTZ from June, 2006 of more than 5,000 Cameroonian girls and women between the ages of 10 and 82, estimated that nearly one in four had undergone breast ironing, corresponding to four million girls in Cameroon alone. Incidence is as high as 53% in the Cameroon's southeastern region of Littoral. Compared with Cameroon's Christian and animist south, breast ironing is less common in the Muslim north, where only 10 percent of women are affected.
Breast ironing is extremely painful and causes tissue damage. As of June, 2006, there has been no research on its medical effects. However, medical experts warn it might contribute toward breast cancer, cysts and depression. Other possible side-effects include breast infections, the formation of abscesses, malformed breasts and the complete eradication of one or both breasts. Breast ironing can also inhibit or prevent breastfeeding.
Breast ironing is considered a way to curb the number of teenage pregnancies, particularly in rural areas, as well as limit the risk of sexual assault.
Mothers in Cameroon believe breast ironing protects their daughters from becoming pregnant and being assaulted as it would postpone their sexual development and men will not be enticed by their breasts. As dietary habits improve, girls hit puberty sometimes at 9.
Although only limited medical research has been done, some say breast ironing can lead to numerous physical issues, such as burns, deformations, and psychological problems. The procedure has been compared to the custom of female circumcision. Template:By whom[verification needed]
As well as being dangerous, breast ironing is criticised as being ineffective for stopping early sex and pregnancy. GTZ and the Network of Aunties, a Cameroonian non-governmental organization that supports young mothers, campaign against breast ironing, and are supported by the Ministry for the Promotion of Women and the Family. In Cameroon, if a medical doctor determines that damage has been caused to the breasts, the perpetrator can be punished by up to three years in prison, provided the matter is reported within a few months.
- Randy Joe Sa'ah (2006-06-23). "Cameroon girls battle 'breast ironing'". BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/5107360.stm. Retrieved 2008-01-02.
- Ruth Gidley and Megan Rowling (2006-07-07). "Millions of Cameroon girls suffer "breast ironing"". Reuters. http://www.alertnet.org/thefacts/reliefresources/115270667798.htm. Retrieved 2008-01-02.
- Sylvestre Tetchiada (2006-06-13). "An Unwelcome "Gift of God"". IPS News. http://www.ipsnews.net/print.asp?idnews=33603. Retrieved 2008-01-02.
- "Campaign launched to counter "breast ironing"". PlusNews. 2006-06-28. http://www.plusnews.org/report.aspx?reportid=39711. Retrieved 2008-01-01.
- Breast Ironing, 8 minute film at current.com crediting GTZ and the Network of Aunties
- Sabri Ben-Achour (Trans.) (2007-01-15). "Ironed Maidens". Harper's Magazine. http://harpers.org/IronedMaidens.html. (subscription required)