Ever got burned in hand by mistake. Ever touched a hot iron rod while hair curling. How did you feel? Did it hurt? Did it leave marks for days?

Now imagine small girls being forcefully given hot metal rod in their chest area by their own mothers and aunts.

A cultural practice I.e. Breast Ironing or Breast Flattening that cuts across all ethnic groups in Cameroon, Africa. This has been mostly practised in Cameroon and some African countries like Central Africa Republic, Benin, Chad, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Kenya, Nigeria, Togo and Zimbabwe. Because men in this area of the country strongly believe that teenage girls as low as 9 years whose breasts are developing are ripe for sex.

In reaction, a mother who cares about her daughter and monitors her daughter’s breast growth pounds the breast with hot practised as a stone, hammer, an umbilical belt or a pestle so that it stops developing. This way, men will find her unattractive and she can pursue her education.

Breast Ironing, though still practised, has remained unknown to many. This is an old cultural practice of flattening or crushing the breast of an adolescent girl to disguise the signs of development. This ritual is mostly performed on the breast of the young adolescent by her mother through the use of a hard or heated object to flatten the breast, stop the breast from developing, or better still make them disappear. It can also be performed by any close female relative of the girl like the grandmother, aunty, sister, etc.

Breast ironing ranges from using heated leaves to massage and knead the breasts, to the use of baked grinding stone to a crush the girls’ budding breasts.

  • The first involves heating tools like metal, sticks, heavy stone, pestles, spatulas, spoons, rocks, grinding stones, hot coconut shells, leaves, and hammers over a hot charcoal fire, and then pressed on the young breasts, with the aim of flattening them or stunting their growth. The heat from the tools is required to melt the fat on the breasts, so as to stop them from growing or bulging.
  • The second involves wrapping the girl’s chest very tightly with an elastic bandage overnight for a long time; sometimes as long as a year.

The health consequences of breast ironing are enormous. Some of these health hazards include breast tissue damage, breast cancer, cysts, lesions, itching, trauma, depression, breast infections, the formation of abscesses, inability to produce in later life, malformed breasts and the eradication of one or both breasts.

This problem has been brought to light in other countries but remains an open secret in places where it is practised. This system of breast ironing has been extended to the UK and nine other countries including Benin, Cote D’Ivoire, Togo. It is thought that about 1,000 girls in West African communities across the UK have been subjected to the practice but the actual number is much higher than you are thinking.

Is this a protection of girls against rape and other sexual assault or direct child abuse?