Women fight breast ironing through sex education

Teenage mothers in Cameroon learn about reproductive health

Story highlights

  • Breast ironing widespread in Cameroon, says study
  • The Association of Aunties is educating women about sexual health
  • Former victims are among those campaigning for the practice to be eradicated
  • Some mothers say they don't know they are harming their daughters
Cameroon's high rate of teenage pregnancy is being blamed for driving mothers to use harmful traditions on their daughters -- including the unspeakable practice of breast ironing.
Some mothers "iron" their daughters' breasts with a hot pestle to make them less desirable to men. It's a practice that's meant to stop them getting pregnant at a young age, but it leaves many girls physically and emotionally scarred.
A study in 2006 found nearly one in four Cameroonian girls have been affected. But a new generation of Cameroonian women are on a mission to eradicate the practice.
Among them is Georgette Taku. She believes better sex education is the key to reducing teenage pregnancy and changing attitudes to breast ironing.
"What is killing the Cameroonian girl in society is that mothers don't communicate with their daughters, they don't talk," said Taku.
Taku works for the Association of Aunties, a national network that promotes sexual dialogue. It was her own pregnancy and the birth of her son that pushed her into a life of activism.
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"They (mothers) only resort to some actions, some practices to try to help the girl," said Taku. "It's better to talk to your daughter -- that's why we teach the mothers even things like puberty."
"The mothers are ignorant, they don't know how to approach their daughters," she added.
With the help of sponsors, the association produces television and print campaigns urging Cameroonian girls to find their voice and confront their mothers.
Workshops are also held to educate women about reproductive health. The idea is that when they graduate they'll become trusted sources of information for other Cameroonian girls.
One workshop participant, Terisia, became pregnant aged 15. Her mother ironed her breasts when she was just nine years old.
Terisia believes she might not have become pregnant so young if her mother had talked to her about sex instead.
"The advice could have worked better than pressing the breasts," Terisia said. "Sitting with the child, giving the child advice, telling her to prevent sexual intercourse, or if you want to have (sex) you should protect yourself."
But like other mothers, Terisia's mother Grace says she ironed her daughter's breasts to stop boys looking at her.
"If you ask mothers who are doing breast ironing on their daughters, they will tell you that, 'no I'm doing it because I want to help her, I want to protect her from men,'" said Taku.
Among those working for the Association of Aunties is a former victim of breast ironing who says she regrets not speaking out about what was happening to her.
Cathy Aba now hopes to save other girls by confronting mothers about the effects of their actions.
"It's not easy to approach mothers who are involved in the practice of breast ironing," she said. "They consider it a cultural practice. 'My grandmother did it to me,' they tell us."
The 23-year-old still has painful scars, 14 years after her breasts were ironed. Her doctor says surgery is no longer an option.
"When you finally pass the message to them, they finally accept and decide to never do it again," Aba added.
The campaign group says former victims like Aba really drive home its message.
"Our victims help us a lot because they talk to mothers; they make the mothers understand that they suffered from this practice," Taku said.
"Even though they had the breasts ironed they grew up ignorant when it came to pregnancy, HIV and other sexual diseases because the mothers were not talking with them."