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Breast ironing is a practice involving pounding the chest of a girl entering puberty with heated objects to prevent or limit development of the breasts. This practice has been most widely observed in the African nation of Cameroon, where a 2006 study indicated that as many as one in four women and girls had been subjected to breast ironing, usually by a mother, although some girls did it to themselves. People engage in this practice in the belief that it will prevent people from viewing young women as sexually available, as the development of breasts is often taken as a signal that a girl is ready for sexual activity.
A wide variety of objects are used in breast ironing including stones, pestles, and banana peels. These objects are heated and applied to the chest to damage the breast tissue. The breasts may be pounded or massaged to further break up the breasts. Complications can include permanent tissue damage, abscesses, infections, and extreme pain for the patient. Some medical researchers have expressed concern that the practice may also increase the risk of developing cancer by causing abnormal tissue changes that could eventually become cancerous.
In Cameroon, as in other nations, the development of breasts is heralded as a step into womanhood. Girls may be forced to marry as soon as their breasts develop, and if not forced to marry, they are often taken out of school and sequestered by family members concerned that they may bring shame on the family by engaging in sexual activity. Some mothers and daughters argue that this practice provides more opportunities to girls by allowing them to complete school and avoid forced marriages at young ages.
As quality of life in Cameroon has improved, many women enter puberty at increasingly early ages. Breast ironing can start as early as age eight or nine. The practice is physically, as well as emotionally, traumatic. Human rights groups in Cameroon argue that breast ironing should be banned, and the practice is regularly discussed in human rights reports from the region. Awareness campaigns focused on addressing common justifications for breast ironing are being used to encourage people to avoid the practice.
Groups pushing for an end to breast ironing in Cameroon have campaigned on related human rights issues like ensuring access to education for women and girls in Cameroon, ending child marriages, and establishing a better framework for handling sexual assault and rape. These campaigns are designed to eliminate many of the arguments for breast ironing to lead to an end to the practice.