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04.07.2006 General News

Breast-Ironing • Cameroun's Painful Secret

Geraldine Sirri was only nine years old when her mother started daily massaging her pre-pubescent breasts with a blazing hot stone to keep them flat -- and keep men's eyes and hands off her daughter.

One-quarter of all Camerounian women are said to have been victims of this painful "breast-ironing", as it is known.

But ironically, the tradition was a mystery to many in the West African nation until a recent campaign to stop the potentially dangerous practice, aimed at delaying a young girl's natural development.

Geraldine, now 19, will never forget those "very painful massages" her worried and otherwise well-intentioned mother administered with a "pestle heated on a fire", she says.

"After six days of massage with the hot pestle, she'd switch to another instrument, like a coconut shell, which would also be heated over the fire," she says.

"The practice involves using heated objects to massage the breasts to make them disappear," says Germaine Ngo'o, co-author of a joint Cameroun-German study on the issue.

Ariane, who did not give her last name, recalls similar trauma, only that her mother's instrument was a stone dipped into scalding water and then used to "practically crush my breasts".

"After that, my breasts would be wrapped with a stretchy fabric called a 'breast-band'. The aim of this practice was to keep my chest flat so I would not attract men," she says.

The campaign, like the study, is a joint effort involving the German Agency for Technical Co-operation GTZ), an international group for sustainable development that works mainly for the German government and the National Network of the Associations of Aunties (Renata), one of what are said to be many home-grown women's support groups in this country of 17.3-million just south of Nigeria.

The campaign's pamphlets and posters were designed to warn about the dangers of a questionable practice -- but also exposed what turned out to be a national secret.

"I couldn't believe that such a practice existed. I never before heard about this 'breast-ironing'," says one university professor.

"In my tribe, there was never any such phenomenon and even with my girlfriends, it never came up in conversation," says an equally incredulous Georgette, a restaurant manager who gave only her first name.

"But it nonetheless is a practice that affects one girl in four," says Ngo'o. "Twenty-four per cent of all the girls in Cameroon have been subjected to this phenomenon and carry the consequences."

Bessem Ebanga, Executive Secretary of Renata, herself a victim of breast-ironing, said the practice occurred in all the country's 10 provinces, crossing religious and ethnic bounds.

"Though the top prize goes to Littoral province where it affects 52% of all girls," she says. "The aim of Renata is to prevent young girls from being subjected to what we were."

Unlike many African countries, Cameroon enjoys relative political stability and has a highly rated educational system and one of Africa's highest literacy rates.

But on the social spectrum, teenage pregnancy is a real problem here, as elsewhere in the region.

"It's all because breasts are a sign of puberty and that worries parents," says Flavien Ndonko, Ngo'o's co-author.

"Our study found that the practice of breast-ironing exists in practically all tribes, using objects as diverse as stones, spatulas, herbs, pestles, or heated banana peels."

Beyond the uncertainty of whether it works, "the practice generally traumatises the young girl and creates other problems," says Ndonko, citing a litany of "infections, cysts and even cancer", while other victims later find they are unable to breastfeed their babies.

"The breast is a sign of growth and it is useless, even dangerous to attack the physical integrity of a young girl," says Ndonko.

The campaign's slogan says it all: "Breasts, a gift from God. Let them develop naturally."

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