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The Practice Of Breast Ironing

Edited by: Morgan Reitzel


Breast ironing, also known as breast flattening, is a harmful practice common in Cameroon that generally involves the repetitive pounding, or massaging of a pubescent girl's breasts, often with hard or heated objects, in an attempt to stop or delay their growth or development, make them flatter, or disappear.


A wooden pestle, typically used for pounding tubers, is the most commonly used tool for breast ironing. Other tools may include heated grinding stones, cast-iron pans, ladles, hammers, spatulas, spoons, brooms, or electric irons, black fruit pits, coconut shells, plantain peels, and specific leaves or plants which are believed to possess medicinal or healing qualities. Breast ironing may also involve tightly wrapping or tying bandages, elastic compresses, cloths, or belts around young girls’ chests. 


Ironing is typically done at dawn in a private area such as the household kitchen to prevent others, particularly fathers or other male figures, from seeing the ironing. Depending on the victim's refusal and the resistance of the breasts, the massaging process could last anywhere from one week to several months. This is because when girls have breasts, boys and men may believe that girls are ready for intimacy. Breast ironing is motivated by a variety of factors, the most important of which is that it is viewed as a form of "protection". It is specifically performed to help disguise the onset of puberty in girls, which is thought to deter male attention and protect them from sexual harassment, assault, exploitation, and rape, as women and girls are frequently at risk of sexual harassment and violence in countries where it is practiced.


Child marriage is another factor that contributes to the practice. Child marriage has numerous negative economic, social, demographic, psychological, and reproductive health consequences for child brides, their families, and communities. For example, child marriage severely limits girls' educational and employment opportunities and can have a long-term negative impact on their quality of life. 

Long-standing traditional norms, entrenched sociocultural attitudes, and widespread gender inequality all contribute to breast ironing. In particular, deeply ingrained patriarchal norms contribute to rigid gender roles and privilege or ascribe higher status to men while assigning lower status to women in many societies. Cultural ideals of femininity encourage modesty, whereas female sexuality is frequently regarded as shameful and must be repressed, hidden, and denied. Furthermore, chastity and virginity at marriage are regarded as critical components of a girl's personal and family honor. Breast development in girls is thought to be inextricably linked to their transition into womanhood and to the emergence of their sexuality.


Breast ironing, like a number of other harmful traditional practices, is typically performed by female familial relatives. Traditional midwives, healers, and shamans may occasionally perform the practice, which can provide them with a steady income, other reimbursements, and an elevated social status.


Moreover, breast ironing aims to maintain cultural ideals about gender roles, social relationships, and appropriate sexual behaviors. It is an attempt to maintain control over women's bodies and sexuality, and it is viewed as a way to ensure chastity and prevent early pregnancy, premarital sexual relations, or children born out of wedlock - all of which can significantly tarnish or dishonor a family's social status or standing.


Tissue damage, infection, severe fever, scarring, mastitis-an inflammation of breast tissue, the complete disappearance of one or both breasts, and an increased risk of breast cancer are all serious health consequences of breast ironing.


To conclude with, the idea that breast ironing is a cultural practice should not be used as an excuse; gender equality must be promoted, and the deeply entrenched patriarchal norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes that underpin breast ironing must be vigorously challenged. Women's and girls' empowerment should be promoted, while their inherent worth and basic rights must be recognized and protected. Men and boys, in particular, should be involved in order to change their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors regarding control, discrimination, and sexual violence.



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