Cameroonian women and girls whose chests were ironed with hard and heated objects by their mothers in a traditional practice tell their heartbreaking stories.
WARNING: The following materials contain explicit content!
Breast ironing is the pounding and massaging of a pubescent girl’s breasts, using hot tools, to try to make them stop developing or to disappear. It is typically carried out by family members who are trying to protect the girl from s*xual harassment and rape. They hope it will also prevent early pregnancy that would tarnish the family name, or to allow the girl to pursue education rather than be forced into early marriage.
It is mostly practiced in parts of Cameroon, where boys and men may think that girls whose breasts have begun to grow are ready for s*x. The most widely used implement for breast ironing is a wooden pestle normally used for pounding tubers. Other tools used include leaves, bananas, coconut shells, grinding stones, ladles, spatulas, and hammers heated over coals.
“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. It’s been two years now and she still checks it on a daily basis. It’s humiliating. I’d like her to stop. When I grow up, I want to be a lawyer or play piano. I hope that wearing this bandage will help me to continue my education.” – Cindy, 14 years old.
“Having breasts was shameful. My grandmother noticed mine when I was 10. One night, she made me lie down on a bamboo bed by the fire. She pressed on me with a hot wooden spatula and tried to flatten them. Even now, I don’t want people to touch my chest.” – Jeannette, 28 years old.
“When my breasts started to grow, people in my house began to talk about it. Neighbors, my mom’s friends, our elders. So much talking! Even I started to feel ashamed because people were talking about it. 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. We needed to kill those breasts, she claimed. She used hot rock on my right boob, then the left, then the right. This went on for weeks. I suppose she meant well. Breasts are what makes a woman beautiful, though. Today, mine are flabby. They can’t even stand.” – Carole B., 28 years old.
“They tell you: ‘Don’t scream, it’s for your own good.’ I haven’t had the courage to talk about it to my children yet. Three days ago, my son asked me, ‘Mommy, why do you have small breasts?’ I told him that I didn’t know. I also have a six-year-old daughter. But I’m not ready to talk about it. I would have loved to breastfeed a future president.”– Carole N., 28 years old.
“I was eight when my mother told me: ‘Take your top off. Do you have breasts already? When a girl your age has breasts, men look at her.’ I didn’t understand what she was doing. Every day, sometimes three times a day, she would flatten my chest with a hot spatula. She would just say: ‘It’s for your own good.’ It was a nightmare. I noticed that the more she massaged me, the more my breasts grew. When she realized it wasn’t working, she used a rock. That was hell. It felt like my body was on fire. A guidance counselor, who I told everything, tried to talk to my mom and get her to stop. I was happy because I thought it was over. But she did it again—with heated fruit pits this time. She massaged and massaged. I packed my stuff and moved to my aunt’s immediately. Sometimes, I try to understand my mother’s actions. It hurts so much when I look at myself in the mirror.” – Doriane, 19 years old.
“My breasts finally began to grow when I was 18 years old. Before that, boys weren’t attracted to my body. I felt really bad about it. My grandmother began destroying my breast when I was 12 years old. I would try to run away from her every morning but she’d catch me. Other kids were going to school and I was being massaged with a hot rock. She did it twice a day for a year. Having breasts is natural, it’s human. When I didn’t have them, I felt like a boy.” – Agnès, 32 years old.
“Pestles remind me of my childhood pains. That same piece of rock people use to crush spices has been used to crush women’s beauty and wilt teenagers’ skin. My breasts began to grow when I was ten and my family thought that massaging was the solution. When I was 16 and got pregnant, they also darkened. A black fluid would come out every time I tried to breastfeed. I have a hard time remembering it all. I decided to forget it and to fight violence against women.” – Cathy, 27 years old.
“She was my mom, so I had to obey when she called for me. Even if I ran, she’d catch me; when I went to bed, she’d grab me; when I was washing myself, she’d get me and start massaging. She’d find a way, no matter what. I could cry all I want, but she would still do it. It felt like she was stabbing something into my chest. She’s dead now. I never really understood what she was thinking—if she thought she was helping me or punishing me. My cousin raped me when I was 13 and I ended up giving birth to his child. I needed to produce milk but I no longer had breasts. We tried to use driver ants. When they sting you, your breasts inflate and it’s supposed to encourage milk production. I’ve had three children and, despite the ants, I haven’t been able to breastfeed any of them.” – Emmanuelle, 23 years old.
“My mother told me that my breasts were going to attract men. So she brought me to a traditional healer. He grabbed a knife, cut my breasts, one after the other, and sucked the insides out with a tube. He told me: ‘If you don’t do it, people will think you’re a prostitute.’ I fainted from the pain. It took days to heal. Breasts are a gift from God.” – Lisette, 34 years old.