Sunday, March 21, 2010

Young girls face breast ironing in Cameroon

A young Cameroonian girl told the BBC: "My Mother took a pestle, she warmed it well in the fire and then she used it to pound my breast while I was lying down. She took the back of the coconut, warmed it in the fire and used it to iron the breasts. I was crying and trembling to escape but there was no way."

Growing up in Cameroon, the concept of breast ironing had been brought to my attention at some point, but I did not pay close attention to the torture, degrading and inhuman treatment the victims endure. Today, an article published on the Washington Post prompted me to dig deeper, in a bid to uncover the long-standing tradition of breast ironing in Cameroon and what the State is doing to put an end to this barbarism.

Breast ironing is a rudimentary practice that involves the pounding or massaging of budding breasts of adolescent girls usually with hot objects such as grinding stones, coconut shells or wooden pestles - a bat-shaped object, normally used to crush tubers (see photo below).

Why is it done?

The rationale behind this practice is to make developing breasts disappear so as to protect young girls from sexual advances from [unscrupulous] men, thereby avoiding early sex and teenage pregnancies.

Like female genital mutilation, breast ironing violates the fundamental rights of women and young girls - the right to health, physical integrity; not forgetting freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

In Cameroon, breast ironing is common practice in all the ten regions. According to the BBC, 26% of young girls face breast ironing in Cameroon. No doubt in 2006, a much-needed nationwide campaign was launched to shine light on the ordeal of breast ironing in Cameroon. WATCH...

It is worth mentioning that the perpetrators (mostly mothers) show no remorse. They argue that it's not a new practice and that it protects their daughters. Is this not the same argument advanced in favor of the much dreaded female genital mutilation? Does the need to check "early sex" and unwanted pregnancies justify cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment? Is torture justifiable?

It is worth mentioning that Cameroon is party to the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which entered into force in September 1990. Article 19 of the Convention states:
"States parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse while in the care of parents(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child."
Cameroon ratified the Convention on 11 January 1993 - it goes without saying therefore that the State has a legal obligation under international law to protect children within it's borders from the maltreatment, physical or mental violence and injury inflicted by the bizarre practice of breast ironing.

The victims of breast ironing in Cameroon are uncountable, the perpetrators are known and are within reach, but they go scot-free. Young girls who face breast ironing in Cameroon are only protected by the law if it is medically proven that the breast has been damaged and the case is reported within a few months.

*Photo of school children in Cameroon: Hoyasmeg.

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