Anne Mireille Nzouankeu | November 18, 2013
Christelle Nsing is a successful hairdresser with her own salon. When Ms. Nsing was a young girl, she suffered a dreadful ordeal at the hands of her mother and aunts. As she fixes a client’s hair, she recounts what happened to her when she was twelve years old.
Ms. Nsing says: “When my breasts started to grow, my mother took me into the kitchen every night. She put a pestle into the fire to heat, she undressed me, and then she pressed my chest [with the pestle] several times.”
The women in the shop listen attentively as the salon owner tells her story. When she finishes, they break into a discussion on the subject of female mutilation. Christelle Nsing’s hairdressing salon is an essential meeting place for women in the town of Bafang, in western Cameroon. The women in the salon come here to have their hair done, or just to gossip, in the safe haven of a women-only environment.
Twenty-seven-year-old Ms. Nsing is keen to talk to the women about the dangers of breast ironing. The practice involves kneading a young girl’s growing breasts so forcefully that the internal tissues are damaged and the development of the breasts is slowed. This is designed to create the appearance of a young girl in order to delay sexual contact, especially sexual intercourse.
Stone pestles, spatulas and even the peelings from plantains heated in the family fireplace are used to “iron” the breasts. According to a report published in October 2011 by GIZ, a German development organization, 15 per cent, or more than one million women in Cameroon are victims of this mutilating practice.
Although less notorious than female circumcision, breast ironing is equally traumatic. Ms. Nsing remembers her experience: “It was so painful. I screamed and tried to escape. Two aunts had to hold me down while my breasts were ironed. After three months of this treatment, I had burn marks on my chest and my mother stopped putting me through this ordeal.”
The GIZ report notes that many victims have suffered from burns, cysts and abscesses in their breasts. Many are unable to breastfeed later in life.
Genevieve Fotsing subjected her daughters to breast ironing. After listening to Ms. Nsing’s story, she feels that she has to justify her actions. She says: “I ironed my daughters’ breasts so that they could stay at school and study. I do not think that I hurt them, and I do not regret it. They are now graduates and have jobs, while many of their peers got pregnant and left school.”
Ms. Nsing became pregnant at the age of sixteen despite having her breasts ironed. She was forced to give up her studies because, at the time, pregnant girls were not allowed to attend public schools.
She explains: “I am proof that breast ironing does not always work … parents in rural areas must be taught about contraceptive methods that are more effective and less traumatic, like the pill or condoms. If I have to, I’ll raise this subject every day until they change their behaviour and stop this mutilation.”