Activists in Cameroon have begun breaking the silence about 'breast ironing', widely used to protect young women from being noticed by men.
Rarely mentioned, especially to men, the 'ironing' involves massaging the growing breasts of young girls to make them disappear, usually by using a stone, a hammer or a spatula that has been heated over coals.
Now a campaign launched by the German cooperation agency, GTZ, and a local nongovernmental organisation that supports young mothers, the Network of Aunties (RENATA), has warned that using the practice to retard natural physical development is dangerous as well as ineffective.
According to a national survey conducted by GTZ, 24 percent of young girls in Cameroon, and up to 53 percent in the coastal Littoral province in the southeast, where the country's main port, Douala, is situated, admit to having had their breasts 'ironed'. The research also showed that 3.8 million young people could be at risk of exposure to the practice.
Flavien Ndonko, an anthropologist with GTZ's German-Cameroon HIV/AIDS health programme, noted that this painful form of mutilation could not only have negative health consequences for the girls, but was also a futile form of sex education.
"Many of the RENATA girls, who are young mothers, say they were subjected to 'ironing', and this clearly proves that it does not work [as pregnancy prevention] and that it is a futile and traumatic experience imposed on them," said Ndonko.
Young people make up most of the 5.5 percent of the population living with HIV, and teenage pregnancy is a growing concern. One-third of the 20 to 30 percent of girls with unwanted pregnancies are between 13 and 25 years of age, with more than half of them having fallen pregnant after their first sexual encounter, according to GTZ.
Addressing the general lack of information about sex in the family ran counter to acceptable social norms, GTZ and RENATA pointed out.
"For the parents, it is very difficult to talk of sexuality due to modesty or for cultural reasons ... So they prefer to get rid of the bodily signs of sexuality in this way," Ndonko commented. "However, the onset of adolescence is exactly the right time to start this discussion."
Because the topic of sex was taboo, young girls remained ignorant of how to protect themselves from HIV infection and were even more vulnerable to the virus, said Bessem Arrey Ebanga Bisong, executive secretary of RENATA.
A mother, who asked not be named, admitted that 'breast ironing' was "not a good solution. I did it to my first two daughters out of ignorance, but what must I do with the third one?"
One of her neighbours suggested a solution: "She said I must speak to her [the daughter] and teach her about sexuality. We do not have a dialogue with our children; we don't have the courage to do so. However, we do need to explain to them so they know what it is that they are doing."
According to Ndoko, the newly launched awareness campaign has generated a lot of discussion, and the practice is now being openly talked about.
"This is a good way to resolve the problem: people talk about it and ask why it is being done," said Ndoko. "As there is no way to justify it, they realise that it is a futile practice and, hopefully, they will stop doing it."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions