Saturday, July 24, 2010

Breast Ironing

Sometimes bad things don't seem as bad as they are. One practice that falls into that rubric is breast ironing. Breast ironing, hmm, like hair ironing? Sounds like it smooths out the wrinkles and the irregularities of the breast. An ironed breast could be imagined to be without flaw, without valley or crater and ready for a gentle caress. Hit the reject button, beeeep, beeep, beeep. WRONG.

The West African country of Cameroon, with a population of 16 million, uses breast ironing. About 25% of young females are ironed. For girls, who enter puberty earlier, the more likely they will be ironed. Cameroonians, concerned with the possibility of teen pregnancy, have decided that it would be best for their daughters to be less attractive. Developed breasts, the larger the better, are sex magnets. The thinking of those who practice ironing is that breast growth discouragement will keep the boys away. If a girl can avoid early pregnancy, she will be able to complete her education. Consequently, these parents iron their daughters breasts.

Hot flat stones, wooden pestles, shells or other hot objects are applied to the breasts.

Treatments, twice a day, for some months are required. Over time, the breasts diminish in size, regress or fail to develop. As it turns out, it is thermal injury, which is the operative force. Perhaps thermal injury is too euphemistic, ?burning?, might be a better term. The alliterative "breast burning" somehow doesn't have the cachet of breast ironing. The girls suffer the pain of the procedure and are subject to abscesses, scarring and breast irregularity, deformity and disfigurement.

The practice is a part of the culture of Cameroon. With all due respect to cultural variation, this practice is cruel and it is the product of too little information. Teen pregnancy is best dealt with by education. Young people, in every culture, need to understand their sexuality. In so understanding, they will be better able to deal with the issues of teen sex and pregnancy. Breast ironing represents a cruel attempt at squelching sexual attractiveness. In a way, breast ironing, is a cousin to another degrading and harmful practice, female circumcision. It can be no coincidence that these mutilations are applied only to girls and women.

It is time for the international community to help the government of Cameroon begin the process of educating all Cameroonians about the practice of breast ironing. It is time for the world to speak out about this human rights violation. The government, itself, is attempting to put an end to the practice. If a doctor reports ironing within a few months of it occurring, punishments are available. The Network of Aunties, a non governmental agency, campaigns against breast ironing. In any event, it is time. Indeed.

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