Cameroon ‘Aunties’ educate to protect rural girls from breast ironing

Eva Fernández Ortiz – WNN Features

Cameroon girls
Cameroon girls face multiple dangers as their bodies mature, including the dangers of early pregnancy where traditions have lead mothers to use any means necessary, including breast ironing, in efforts to protect them. Image: Carsten ten Brink

(WNN) CAMEROON: All mothers will do whatever it takes to protect their children’s well being. In Cameroon, this ‘protection’ goes as far as burning their teenage daughters’ breasts. Breast ironing is a traditional practice that painfully affects about one in four girls in Cameroon, Africa. But new education programs for girls by Cameroon volunteer ‘Aunties’ are showing progress.

“I was 11 years old. My mum did it to me. She put the pestle next to the fireside and massaged the breast. It was very painful…,” remembers Cameroonian Lindsay Efuengho, who is twenty-two-years-old.

Surveys in Cameroon indicate that 38 percent of all girls who develop breasts before the age of 11 have been subjected to breast ironing. For girls who begin to have breast development before the age of 9 the risk is as high as 50 per cent.

The case of twenty-six-year-old Joyce Forghab was even worse. She was only 8 years old when the painful forced procedure began.

“My mum did not even use her hands; she used cardboard or something to protect her hands because she knew that it was very painful, it was really hot. So she took the stone and pressed it to my breasts and massaged them.”

Often girls are held down during the procedure which can result in severe bruises, burned skin, abscessed regions in the chest and breast abnormalities. “The practice causes severe pain and can result in strong fevers, malformations of the breasts, cysts and abscesses,” said independent medical researchers F. Ndonko and G. Ngo’o in 2007.

“She did it during a whole month, every morning and every evening, because my breast would not go… I used to pray ‘Please God, make my breasts disappear’,” remembers Joyce.

Aside from causing burns and permanent deformity this practice also leaves deep psychological scars.

“After (I) have it done, apart from the pain, I felt very, very ashamed. I was ashamed of myself,” said Forghab. “I thought, if my parents are ironing my breasts at that age it means that I am not supposed to have them.”

Despite a daughters’ tears and pleas to stop, mothers continue to perform this practice on their daughters assuring. “It is for their own good,” many mothers say.

But what good? What could possibly be worth justifying such a harmful intervention? Breast ironing is a traditional practice that currently affects about 25 percent of all girls in Cameroon.

More commonly performed in the rural areas than in cities, “breast ironing has existed as long as Cameroon,” says Dr. Sinou Tchana, a Cameroon gynecologist and vice-president of the Cameroonian Association of Female Doctors.

It can seem shocking that mothers, the same mothers who are supposed to love and care for their children, are also the ones hurting them the most by burning their body. But many mothers who still practice breast ironing are hoping to prevent their daughters from getting pregnant at a ‘too-early’ age. What starts as an attempt to protect often leaves girls injured and confused.

“While the minimum legal age for a woman to marry is 15, many families facilitated the marriage of young girls by the age of 12. Early marriage was prevalent in the northern regions of Adamaoua, North, and particularly the remote
Far North, where many girls as young as nine faced severe health risks from pregnancies,” says the U.S. Department of State in a new report on Cameroon.

Too Sexually Developed, Too Early

“When the breasts of a young girl start growing, any man can come to her and try to have sex with her,” explains Ze Jeanne, a fifty-seven-year-old Cameroonian mother who made sure her female children did undergo the process of breast ironing during their adolescence.

It is uncertain whether the practice in attempting to reduce the size of growing breasts prevented Jeanne’s daughters from having sex at a young age. Rape, high-risk of teenage pregnancies, unsafe abortions, HIV transmissions and early school drop-out rates are all part of a long list of negative consequences facing girls that are widely sexualised throughout Cameroon.

As deep-seated inequalities for women continue to curse the country, many discussed topics in sex-education are still considered left out and publicly ‘taboo.’ But conditions are showing improvement.

Training more than 140 local associations by early 2007, the Cameroonian advocacy group for women and girls called the National Association of Aunties in Cameroon – also known as RENATA – have trained and recruited over 6,000 volunteer unwed mothers, who became pregnant as teens, to bring sex-education to the girls and boys of Cameroon. Today they are bringing sex-education into neighborhoods and village schools.

With a potential of reaching 38,000-48,000 students per year the volunteer trainers work in pairs to teach children in their classrooms, especially girls, how they can be protected from pregnancy.

Trends for recognizing and identifying women and girls’ needs are also improving throughout the Cameroon region. In spite of these improvements, many girls still experience forced non-consensual sex at a young age. But they aren’t the only ones in danger. Those who have consensual sex also suffer equal risks to those who have been sexually assaulted.

Girls who take chances to have voluntary sex at a young age do suffer. One in three pregnant teens are often abandoned by their sex-partners says the 2009 statistics by RENATA. They also often drop-out of school as they stop attending  during and/or following their pregnancy. Many admit also to having an abortion which leads them often to unsafe home abortion procedures.

Numerous others face the risk of HIV/AIDS, a strongly stigmatised disease in Cameroon.

The problems don’t stop with only one pregnancy. Many teens have more than one pregnancy. “21% of the unwed females had already had at least one unwanted pregnancy and, of that group, 36% had had at least one induced abortion and it was often unsafe (not performed by a qualified professional),” says RENATA.

“Adolescents contribute significantly to deliveries in Cameroon and more especially in the Northern regions,” says Obstetrics and Gynecology International (2009) in a region where youth and pregnancy is common.

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