How I Stopped My Grandmother from Ironing My Breasts

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Chi Yvonne Leina speaks about “Problems faced by Female Journalists in Africa” during the West African Conference for journalists organized by the Media Project in June 2011. Photo credit: Yemi Kosoko

Cameroonian journalist and women's rights advocate Chi Yvonne Leina is the founder and coordinator of Gender Danger, a grassroots women`s organization that is fighting to end the practice of breast ironing in Cameroon. She will be attending the upcoming Commission on Status of Women (CSW) this year as a World Pulse correspondent, in the hopes of raising awareness and creating partnerships to help her NGO expand its work to prevent breast ironing in Cameroon. This is her first-hand account of the practice of breast ironing as part of UN Women’s “In the Words of…” series. 

What goes on in the mind of an 11-year-old girl who is locked up in a kitchen daily by her own mother, who uses a fire-hot stone to burn and press her sprouting breasts?

Pain and perpetual fear become her daily companions. She is forced to believe that it is a shameful thing for her breasts to develop. Imagine her at a later stage in life not being able to breastfeed her baby because the milk ducts have been destroyed by this practice or unable to enjoy sex because her sensual nerves were killed by her mother in the name of protection.

This is a daily reality for over 4 million girls in Cameroon, where mothers have resorted to destroying early signs of womanhood in their daughters for fear of attracting sexual predators.

With long black hair, a slender body, and ebony skin, my cousin Aline’s beauty was obvious to every casual observer. She was pretty and intelligent. She had just turned twelve, and grandma kept an eye on her developing breasts and beauty. She kept saying Aline would soon start attracting men and get pregnant before getting married if nothing is done to those breasts.

One day, as I approached grandma`s hut, there was unusual silence, except for the chirping of birds and the flowing sound of a nearby river. Grandma’s hut was locked. I heard another sound: it was Aline, groaning in pain! I peeped through a small hole on the wall of the hut. There was grandma, pressing Aline’s breast with her grinding stone. Why was she doing this? I got to understand why my beautiful cousin had changed completely; because grandma was “fixing” her.

Aline was always unhappy and moved with her arms covering her breasts. Her once glowing beauty was gradually fading away. She refused schooling later that year and eventually got pregnant a few years after.

A few months after that incident, grandma called me and asked me to take off my shirt for her to fix me. I refused and threatened to alert the neighbors and tell my mom if she dared. I was not ready for anyone to burn and press my budding breasts in the name of “fixing” me. Out of fear, grandma gave up. She anxiously watched me as I grew, expecting the worst to happen at any time.

I learned from that moment that it is important to speak out in the face of adversity. Unfortunately, many women and girls in my community do not have the opportunity to do so.

According to a survey by the United Nations Population Fund and German Development Cooperation, one in four girls in Cameroon have had their breasts brutally pressed or pounded with hot objects, usually by their mothers, to prevent them from developing early.  Practiced in all regions of Cameroon, breast ironing is done to prevent girls from attracting men at an early age. This extremely painful act has health and psychological consequences which contribute to the high rate of school dropout amongst girls in Cameroon.

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