For many girls around the world the onset of puberty represents a time of uncertainty, even anxiety, as their bodies change. But for approximately 3.8 million girls around the world that anxiety turns to anguish, as the start of adolescence brings with it a practice called “breast ironing.”
When girls start showing signs of puberty, mothers begin “ironing” their breasts, using heated tools like stones, spatulas, and pestles to pound or massage their chests, in an attempt to prevent them from developing. The practice is also known as “breast flattening” or “breast sweeping,” according to Newsweek. In order to prevent girls’ breasts from growing, mothers may also wrap bandages tightly around their daughters’ chests.
“Breast ironing,” like “female genital mutilation” is a practice that has been perpetuated for the “good” of girls.
While studies have found that “breast ironing” is practiced in Chad, Guinea Bissau, Togo, and Benin, it is most common in Cameroon, where nearly a quarter of girls and women have had their breasts “ironed.” Cases have also been reported in the UK and as many as 1,000 girls from West African immigrant communities in the UK are believed to have undergone “breast ironing,” The Week reported.
Though “breast ironing” is intended to protect girls from unwanted sexual advances, the practice can be both physically and emotionally traumatic.
"Every morning, before going to school, my mom makes me lift up my top so she can make sure I haven't taken my bandage off,” a 14-year-old Cameroonian girl told French photographer Gildas Paré, whose project Plastic Surgery Dream spotlights victims of the practice. “It's been two years now and she still checks it on a daily basis. It's humiliating. I'd like her to stop.”
The “breast ironing” process itself is painful and may make girls feel ashamed of their bodies. And ultimately, “breast ironing” is ineffective, as it does not stop breasts from developing.
Though “breast ironing” is not exclusively performed by mothers on their daughters, the practice is typically carried out by a girl’s mother or a female relative; however, in some cases, girls have “ironed” their own breasts, Newsweek reported.
The heated tools often leave scars, and the wounds can make girls more vulnerable to infections and cause complications later in life. Some women whose breasts were “ironed” have said they had trouble producing milk and breastfeeding their children later in life.
By “ironing” their daughters’ breasts, mothers in Cameroon hope to make their daughters less sexually attractive to men, staving off early marriage and pregnancy, and keeping them in school, Newsweek reported. While the practice is misguided, such fears of early pregnancy, marriage, or rape are not unfounded.
According to UNICEF, 38% of children in Cameroon are married by their 18th birthdays. More than a quarter of adolescent girls are mothers, and 20% of them drop out of school after getting pregnant, the Cameroon Medical Council reported.
"When my breasts started to grow, people in my house began to talk about it,” a 28-year-old Cameroonian woman told Paré. “Eventually, my mom decided to iron my breasts. 'If we don't iron them, it will attract men. And we know that men mean pregnancy,' she said...I suppose she meant well.”
Read more: Child Marriage: Everything You Need to Know
Though these mothers may have good intentions, “breast ironing” is unlikely to address the larger, systemic problems they are hoping to solve: violence against women and gender inequality.
Rather than trusting men to respect women’s bodies and their choices, these mothers believe they must make their daughters less attractive to protect them.
When girls and women are seen as equals and are empowered to make choices for themselves, choices that are respected by those around them, the need to “protect” girls through “breast ironing” will be eliminated.
Some survivors of “breast ironing” have made it their mission to educate Cameroonian women about its harmful effects to discourage them from continuing the practice, CBS reported. Cameroon has yet to pass against the “traditional harmful practice,” according to Gender Empowerment and Development (GeED) a Cameroon-based organization.
Global Citizen campaigns to protect girls and women from all forms of gender-based violence. You can take action here to help advance gender equality worldwide.