The Dichotomy of Protecting Children By Means of Torture

Traditional breast ironing is ‘loving’ child abuse.

By Kevin RR Williams

HEALTH Return home to experience abuse or remain in the streets and become the subject of violent sexual assault. This is the tortuous young dilemma of many pubescent girls in parts of the West African nations of Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Togo, Benin, and most prevalently in Cameroon where an estimated 24% of girls experience breast ironing. UN estimates, up to 3.8 million girls worldwide are affected, including an estimated 1000 in Britain. The similarly horrific practice of female genital mutilation generally occurs once, perhaps followed later by a ceremonious slitting to conceive and perhaps another to give birth.

Breast ironing (or flattening), in contrast, is repeated over and over again — sometimes daily. Traditional familial theory is that the procedure makes the girls less attractive to perverted males. However, in practice, some girls continue to be sexually active and become victims of sexual violence.

In Cameroon, one in four girls will undergo breast ironing, a painful practice advocates say is motivated by love. Click above image to watch CNN video.

Effects of Breast Ironing

Breast ironing, sometimes done by pounding with spatulas, hammers, or heated stones. It has reportedly led to cysts, lesions, an inability to produce breast milk, and perhaps to the development of cancer in some young women. The painful practice often results in the destruction of mammary glands, making girls vulnerable to breast infection, itching, scars, and abscesses.

Indicators that a girl has undergone breast ironing:

  • Unusual behaviour after an absence from school or college including depression, anxiety, aggression, withdrawn etc.
  • Reluctance in undergoing normal medical examinations
  • Some girls may ask for help, but may not be explicit about the problem due to embarrassment or fear
  • Fear of changing for physical activities due to scars showing or bandages being visible

Plastic Dream Project

“Plastic Dream” is a visual essay by French photographer Gildas Paré that explores the Cameroonian cultural practice of breast ironing. The ironing involves crushing the mammary glands of young girls whose puberty development is deemed too early. This body control is performed by their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, or healers, using objects hijacked from the kitchen.

“My approach to meeting the girls came true in delicacy and dignity. Because the experience of these girls is a great pain,” says Gildas. Find more stories and examples of Gildas' work on his website. He is looking for places to exhibit his portraits and really wants to go back to Cameroon to shoot more photographs.

Related: Anatomy of an Estranged Family

Tags: augmentation, areolae, conformity, emotions, puberty, women's rights

  1. What is breast ironing and how common is it in Britain?
  2. Female genital mutilation.
  3. Breast Ironing.
  4. Breast ironing: From Britain to Cameroon young girls are mutilated to hide puberty.
  5. Breast Ironing: Briefing (PDF).
  6. The Dangers of Breast Ironing.
  7. The Victims of Cameroon's Horrific Breast Ironing Tradition.
  8. Plastic Dream.