The cocks crowed, signifying morning was nigh.
Hope shuddered as she thought of what awaited her.
Her developing breasts throbbed with excruciating pain, worsened hours ago when her mama had pounded them with hot stones.
She’d cried and pled as mama pounded and auntie held her, but it was useless.
They said they were doing it for her, they didn’t want the men to desire her, but Hope felt none of their love.
All she felt was the pain.
And she saw the scars she knew would never leave.
She heard mama’s footsteps. It was time.
This was her daily routine, one that began when she’d clocked nine and the breasts started to show.
She sobbed, wishing herself away from this hidden ritual.
No one could hear her, no one could save her.

Hope may not be real but what she suffered – breast ironing – is. This is the reality for many girls.

Breast ironing is an action perpetuated to stop the development of breasts. It is carried out by using hot objects like stones, paddles, spatulas, and brooms to massage, pound, and press the breasts flat. Sometimes, belts or bandages are used to bind the breasts. This act is usually carried out by mothers, female relatives, shamans and rarely, the victim.

I first came to know of this practice when I stumbled across a report by Aljazeera, detailing this cruel act that is ongoing within refugee communities in Ogoja, Nigeria – my country. The report explained that this act is carried out by refugee Cameroonian mothers because of the high levels of sexual harassment and assault to which female refugees are exposed. It is done in the hope that their daughters will become less desirable to men.

According to the United Nations, 3.8 million girls in the world today are affected by breast ironing.

Breast ironing culture, also known as breast flattening, is widespread in African countries like Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Benin, and Togo. It is most prevalent in Cameroon, with the number of girls who have been subjected to it estimated at around 1.3 million! However, it is not only prevalent in African countries. Came Women and Girls Development organization estimate that every year, 1000 girls aged 9-15 across the UK are victims of breast ironing!

The reasons behind the practice are meant to “protect” girls.

Mothers perform this act because they believe that no breasts will make their daughters less attractive to the opposite sex, thereby warding off sexual advances. These mothers ignore their daughters’ pain as they have the intention of “protecting” them from rape, sexual harassment, early marriage.

Nonetheless, it remains a misguided intention because breast ironing only exposes girls to extreme pain, psychological damage, infections, cancer, and inverted nipples.

What’s being done against breast ironing?

Breast ironing does not receive as much attention as it should. In Cameroon, where it is rampant, anti-breast ironing laws are non-existent. In the UK, it has been recognized as abuse within the Violence Against Women and Girls strategy. As of July 2019, The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has updated the So-Called Honour-Based Abuse and Forced Marriage guidance to recognize breast ironing as a criminal offense. Notwithstanding, to date there have been no prosecutions. This practice continues in secret and is difficult to detect.

While organizations exist that fight against this act, more still needs to be done.

We need to stop it now and save lives.

People need to understand that breast ironing is not capable of solving the larger problems. It is just a branch of a larger tree: gender inequality.

Girls should be seen as equals and taught to respect themselves. Women should understand that sexual abuse is not their fault but the perpetrator’s. This way we can wipe away the need for this practice. Sex education for mothers, children, families should also be integrated into the society.

Lacking restrictions against breast ironing is one of the reasons this practice festers.

The law has turned its face away and refuses to protect these girls. No more should we give the excuse of culture when millions are hurting. We have to start prosecuting perpetrators – this will serve as a deterrent and protect victims. Educators need to be alert for signs of breast ironing. Finding out early will be effective in saving girls.

Breast ironing is a global issue that we need to pay attention to. We should work towards affecting solutions and curing these inequalities that devalue women. Most importantly, we have to put an end to sexual violence, as this harmful practice was ignorantly borne as its solution. We have to stop hurting girls and go after perpetrators of this act and sexual abuse.

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