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Breast ironing, also known as breast flattening, is the pounding and massaging of a pubescent girl's breasts, using hard or heated objects, to try to make them stop developing or disappear. It is typically carried out by the girl's mother who will say she is trying to protect the girl from sexual harassment and rape, to 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 sex. Some reports suggest that it has spread to the Cameroonian diaspora, for example to that in Britain. 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.
Breast ironing is practiced in all ten regions of Cameroon and has also been reported across West and Central Africa, in Benin, Chad, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea-Conakry, Kenya, Togo and Zimbabwe. Breast "sweeping" has been reported in South Africa. All of Cameroon's 200 ethnic groups engage in breast ironing, with no known relation to religion, socio-economic status, or any other identifier. A June 2006 survey by the German development agency GIZ of more than 5,000 Cameroonian girls and women between the ages of 10 and 82 estimated that nearly one in four had undergone breast ironing, corresponding to four million girls. The survey also reported that it is most commonly practiced in urban areas, where mothers fear their children could be more exposed to sexual abuse. Incidence is as high as 53 percent in the Cameroon's southeastern region of Littoral. Compared with Cameroon's Christian and animist south, breast ironing is less common in the Muslim north, where only 10 percent of women are affected. Some hypothesize that this is related to the practice of early marriage, which is more common in the North, making early sexual development irrelevant or even preferable.
A rise in the incidence of breast ironing in recent times has been attributed to the earlier onset of puberty, caused by dietary improvements in Cameroon over the last 50 years. Half of Cameroonian girls who develop under the age of nine have their breasts ironed, and 38% of those who develop under the age of eleven. Additionally, since 1976, the percentage of women married by the age of 19 has decreased from nearly 50% to 20%, leading to an increasingly long gap between childhood and marriage. The later age of marriage may be due to changed social norms that allow girls and women to attend school through university and to hold jobs in the formal sector. Women who delay marriage in pursuit of education and career can procure the corresponding benefit of financial independence later in life, whereas girls who become pregnant are often forced to drop out of school and forgo formal employment.
There are fears that the practice has spread to the Cameroonian diaspora, for example to that in Britain. A charity, CAME Women's and Girl's Development Organisation, is currently working with London's Metropolitan Police and social services departments to raise awareness regarding the problem.
Breast ironing is extremely painful and can cause tissue damage. There have been no medical studies on its effects. However, medical experts warn it might contribute toward breast cancer, cysts and depression, and perhaps interfere with breastfeeding later. Other possible side-effects reported by GIZ include breast infections, the formation of abscesses, malformed breasts and the eradication of one or both breasts. The practice ranges dramatically in its severity, from using heated leaves to press and massage the breasts, to using a scalding grinding stone to crush the budding gland. Due to the range of this activity, health consequences vary from benign to acute.
As well as being dangerous, breast ironing is criticised as being ineffective for stopping early sex and pregnancy. GIZ (then called "GTZ") and the Network of Aunties (RENATA), a Cameroonian non-governmental organization that supports young mothers, campaign against breast ironing, and are supported by the Ministry for the Promotion of Women and the Family. Some have also advocated a law against the practice; however, no such law has been passed. According to one Cameroonian lawyer, if a medical doctor determines that damage has been caused to the breasts, the perpetrator can be punished by up to three years in prison, provided the matter is reported within a few months. However, it is unclear if such a law exists as there are no recorded instances of legal enforcement.
The GIZ survey found that 39 percent of Cameroonian women opposed breast ironing, with 41 percent expressing support and 26 percent indifferent.
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