“Breast ironing” refers to the painful practice of massaging or pounding young girls’ breasts with heated objects to suppress or reverse the growth of breasts. The objects used include plantains, wooden pestles, spatulas, coconut shells, and grinding stones heated over coals. The practice has been documented primarily in Cameroon, but is also practiced in Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Togo, Benin, and Guinea. Breast ironing is often performed by mothers or female relatives of victims misguidedly wishing to protect their young relatives from rape, unwanted sexual advances, early sex, and pregnancies, all of which they fear would result from the appearance that a girl has reached the age of puberty. (See: Kouyaté Expert Paper, p. 3; Cameroon Girls Battle “Breast Ironing,”, BBC News, 2006; “Breast Ironing . . . A Harmful Practice That Has Been Silenced for Too Long”, BAWE Rosaline Ngunshi, Gender Empowerment and Development (GeED), (Aug. 2011)).
- The practice of breast ironing in Cameroon, along with other harmful practices, has been addressed by several UN Human Rights Treaty Committees in their country reviews.
29. The Committee urges the State party to enact national legislation to prohibit female genital mutilation, as well as any other harmful practice, such as breast ironing, in all instances, to strengthen its awareness-raising and educational efforts, targeted at both women and men, with the support of civil society, and to eliminate the practices of female genital mutilation and breast ironing and their underlying cultural justifications. It also encourages the State party to devise programmes for alternate sources of income for those who perform female genital mutilation as a means of livelihood
(d) Set up physical and psychological recovery programmes for child victims of the harmful traditional practices and provide adequate resources for their implementation;
(e) Increase awareness-raising campaigns and educational programmes on the negative effects of harmful traditional practices on children’s health, status and dignity, especially girls, ensuring that they are systematically and consistently mainstreamed and that they target all segments of the society including the general public, men, as well as community, traditional and religious leaders. Also ensure the full participation of civil society and children in programmes and campaigns to combat such practices;
(f) Strengthen the educational measures for girls who are particularly exposed to harmful traditional practices, including those living in the Northern and Eastern part of the country;
(g) Involve practitioners in the efforts to promote abandonment of these practices and when necessary provide retraining for them; and
(h) Include data collection on and analysis of traditional harmful practices in national surveys so as to develop measures to tackle and eliminate such practices, ensuring the full participation of women and girls victims of these practices.
29. [T]hat the State party pass legislation to prohibit female genital mutilation and other harmful traditional practices, in particular breast ironing, no matter what the circumstances, and to ensure its effective enforcement. It also urges the State party to devise programmes to offer alternative sources of income to those who earn their living by performing female genital mutilation and other harmful traditional practices. It should also step up efforts, through information programmes, to raise awareness and educate both women and men regarding the pressing need to put an end to the practices of female genital mutilation and breast ironing.
Legislation addressing breast ironing should include the following elements:
- Legislation should clearly and specifically condemn the practice of breast ironing;
- Legislation should establish and fund education and public awareness programs regarding the consequences of breast ironing;
- Legislation should promote alternative means of preventing early pregnancies through school sex education courses and community outreach education;
- Legislation should impose a duty upon medical providers and teachers to report any case of breast ironing to social service providers and child protection agencies;
- Legislation should authorize courts to issue protection orders upon application by a third party individual or organization on behalf of the child. This protection order should include an ex parte protection order for girls at risk of breast ironing or in the process of breast ironing;
- Legislation should also provide for the protection of younger sisters of known victims, as these sisters are often at risk of being subjected to breast ironing. Drafters should require that the state child protection agency initiate an investigation to determine whether younger siblings of a known victim are at risk of becoming victims, and apply for a protection order if necessary;
- Violation of protection orders should be criminalized;
- Legislation should provide services for victims such as legal, medical, and other types of rehabilitation services; and
- Legislation and other practices that perpetuate this harmful practice, such as sexual assault and harassment, should be amended or abolished.
- Gender Empowerment and Development (GeED) – Responding to the lack of research on the practice of breast ironing in Cameroon, the NGO Gender Empowerment and Development conducted research and published a report providing information and recommendations to combat the practice. “Breast Ironing . . . A Harmful Practice That Has Been Silenced for Too Long” by BAWE Rosaline Ngunshi, Gender Empowerment and Development (Aug. 2011). The report describes the context of breast ironing in Cameroon and provides statistical information on victims and perpetrators. While there is no law against breast ironing, the report outlines the international treaties and conventions to which Cameroon is party that can inform national policies against the practice. The report also provides specific recommendations to government and civil society organizations to combat the practice. The report includes the following recommendations:
- Legislation aimed at illegalizing breast ironing is needed as well as enforcement of any approved law. Furthermore, the Cameroon government should in cooperation with all women organizations intensify efforts on health education on the consequences of the practice of breast ironing to the whole population.
- Health care personnel and other social entities such as social services and the police as well as community leaders should be empowered to denounce the perpetrators of breast ironing.
- Furthermore it creates difficulties in a sense that health care services as well as social services such as police and social welfare services will not report potential victims or perpetrators of breast ironing. Therefore, massive education on the health consequences of breast ironing should become a priority and an inter-sectorial cooperation is an essential component.
- CSOs have a very great role to play, so they should lobby the government into enforcing and putting in place policies that will help eradicate this harmful practice.
- Network of Aunties Association (RENTA) – The NGO RENTA uses community training and sex education for both boys and girls to combat the practice of breast ironing. RENTA strives to replace breast ironing with sex education as a means to protect victims from sexual assault, HIV/AIDS, and unwanted early pregnancy. Since its creation in 2006, RENTA has trained over 6,000 volunteers, known as “Aunties” to provide sex-education throughout Cameroon. In addition, RENTA has used radio and television to promote the end of the practice by raising awareness of the dangers of breast ironing. See: Cameroon ‘Aunties’ educate to protect rural girls from breast ironing, Women News Network, 2 September 2011; Getting it off their chests: Women in Cameroon speak out against breast ironing, The Guardian, 30 May 2012.
See also sub-sections on Relevant Harmful Practices Addressed in this Module: