It happened a long time
ago, two full decades, but Raissa Nana's painful memories have remained fresh.
"My mother began to
flatten my chest when I was 11. Every evening, she heated a stone in boiling
water and pressed it on my breasts," the 31-year-old remembered, her anger
still written all over her face.
Dressed in a plain T-shirt
that betrayed her flat chest, Nana recalled the physical abuse and humiliation
she endured throughout puberty: "I cried out in pain, while my aunts were
holding me down."
By "ironing" her
bust for years, her mother irreparably damaged Nana's breast tissue .
The practice of
"breast ironing", in which mothers try to flatten their daughters'
developing breasts with heavy, heated objects is common in Cameroon as well as
in many other West African countries, including Nigeria, Togo, Guinea, Chad and
Some women use stones or
pestles to prevent breast growth, while others pound the tissue with heated
In nations where teenage
pregnancy and rape are rife, trying to forcibly eliminate signs of puberty to
protect their daughters seems worth the pain to many mothers.
A quarter of girls fall
pregnant under the age of 15 in Cameroon, according to 2011 government
statistics, while an estimated 4% of women and girls are being
"Mothers don't want
their daughters to get involved in early sexual activity, become pregnant and
drop out of school," explained Dr Flavien Ndonko, technical adviser and
anthropologist of aid organisation German Society for International Co-operation
(GIZ) in Cameroon.
In a society, where
discussing sexuality with children is a taboo for cultural and religious
reasons, mothers resort to methods that have serious implications on their
daughters' health and psyche, according to Ndonko.
"They don't realise
how traumatising breast ironing is," he said. "It's a very, very
painful practice."Social issue
But behavioural patterns
are hard to change and myths difficult to set straight.
Even today, Nana's mother,
52-year-old Emilienne, continues to believe the "benefits" of breast
ironing outweigh the physical and emotional suffering it causes.
"I myself underwent
breasts ironing. I did it to my daughter because I wanted the best for
her," she told dpa.
In Cameroon, 12% of
women have had their breasts ironed, according to a new study, for which GIZ
surveyed about 6000 girls and women between the ages of 10 and 82.
Contrary to general
assumptions, breast ironing is not an old tradition. "It's a social issue
that is much more prevalent in urban than in rural areas. It originates from
modern problems around sexuality," explained Ndonko.
The psychological trauma
the practice induces is immense.
"Girls get to
understand that it's not normal to have breasts, which has a long-term impact
on their body image and sexual life," said Ndonko.
"More than half of the
women we interviewed associate breasts with shame," he added.
ministry for family and women's empowerment classified breast ironing as a
"violation of women's rights" in 2011, the government has not
legislated against the practice.
Effects of breast ironing
80% of the
women surveyed by GIZ said their breasts were permanently deformed by breast
ironing. 9% said they had difficulty breastfeeding their babies.
"We have seen girls
developing cysts, infections, deformation and dissymmetry of the breast and
psychological illness," explained Sarah Ako, spokesperson of women's
rights group National Network of Aunties, which works closely with GIZ in
More than 10 000 women across
Cameroon have joined the network to fight for the rights of younger
generations. They run educational campaigns in schools, churches and on
national radio to mobilize against breast ironing.
The good news is that the
campaign has shown success. The 12% of women suffering today from
breast ironing represents a halving of the number in 2006, when an initial GIZ
survey found that one in four women were affected by the practice.
"That's a positive
trend. It's encouraging, but we'll only be happy when we have zero cases,"
Nana is one of the women
who want to help break the cycle. As part of the Aunties network, she consults
young women on issues relating to their sexuality.
Nana says she certainly
won't flatten the breasts of her own daughter, who just turned 14: "I
don't think it's a solution to prevent premature sexuality."