'Yes, I did this to my daughter'

'Yes, I did this to my daughter'

'Yes, I did this to my daughter'

Seemingly innocuous biological changes in young girls are putting them at risk. And to counter these perils, mothers in Africa’s Cameroon are taking some shockingly drastic measures, finds out Kirthi Jayakumar

Fomuso Kazua (name changed) was just a few days shy of turning 12 when she attained puberty. That was also when she started showing signs of developing breasts. One day, out of the blue, her mother told her that she would have to do something that would seem unpleasant to Fomuso, but she had no choice; all girls had to go through it. 

“Everyday she would press down on my chest with a piping hot stone so that my breasts would stop growing. It hurt terribly, but there was nothing I could do,” she recalls.

By the end of that year, the young girl was suffering terrible physical problems: one of her breasts had been scalded into non-existence, while the other developed cysts that were very painful.

It was only after she turned 23 last year and got to read her first foreign magazine that she realised that not all girls in the world have to go through this ordeal. 

What Fomuso has gone through is the brutal practice of breast ironing that is common in the West African country of Cameroon. It refers to the process of flattening the chest of a young girl – mostly pre-pubescent or pubescent – in order to make the breasts disappear, or stop growing.

It is usually done by pounding or massaging the breasts using any hard or heated object. According to the United Nations, breast ironing is one of the five forgotten crimes against women. It estimates that some 3.8 million teenagers are affected by it. 

In Cameroon, as many as one-in-four girls suffer through breast ironing. While the practice certainly thrives in Cameroon, there are reports of it occurring among the Cameroonian Diaspora around the world as well.

Harsh repercussions

As is evident from Fomuso’s account, breast ironing can have tremendous physical and psychological consequences for young women. Obyoma Mercy, a young doctor of Nigerian origin, elaborates, “The obvious effect is tissue damage – because the breast tissue is the first to take the trauma. In the process, there may be injuries and infections, malformed breasts, and in very extreme cases, even the eradication of the breasts.

It all depends on the method used. If there is too much heat given to the area, it is possible that the skin may get scalded. If pressure is applied to stunt the growth then there could be a complete impairment of the mammary gland.

The long-term physical effects can include cysts, tumours and adhesions, besides incapacitation for breastfeeding.”

Even as the child is forced to live with physical deformity, there is no telling of the deep, life-long, psychological effects. “As with the imposition of any injury that is culturally sanctioned, women subjected to breast ironing might find themselves being depressed, or under severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and even a state of abhorrence for their bodies. They could also struggle from the psychological effects of injury that can be a long-term consequence in its own right,” adds Obyoma. 

If this is what breast ironing can do to young girls, why are they being subjected to it, especially by their own mothers? When Fomuso asked this question to her mother, this is what she was told. “She told me it was to protect me – because I could have been raped or sexually abused. And if I had gotten pregnant, the whole family’s respect and honour would have been destroyed,” she narrates. 

So, in order to protect their daughters from unwanted attention, sexual harassment and rape as well as ensure that they get educated rather than being forced into child marriage, mothers resort to breast ironing.

Anything from wooden pestles, leaves, bananas, coconut shells, grinding stones, hammers and even spatulas, heated over hot coals, are used to flatten the developing chest of a young woman. 

In 2010, according to a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) study, around 30 per cent of the girls surveyed in the country, between the ages of 20 and 24, had already given birth to a child before turning 18. Moreover, only around 39 percent of girls had gone in for secondary education. 

“Yes, I did do this to my daughter,” says Noelle Blessing, a Cameroonian mother, pointing to her daughter’s now flat chest. “But I had my own reasons. In my community, girls are considered ‘fresh meat’. As soon as they grow up the men and boys around them begin paying them unwanted attention. I wanted my daughter to study, I wanted her to fearlessly pursue her ambitions.” 

Choking on tears, she continues, “The sad thing is that she could do this only after compromising on her physical health and appearance. You see, after the ironing, she was unattractive – and that meant that she was safe.”

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