Joseph Ana: Breast flattening, ironing, straightening, and pounding: a new form of violence against girls and women

Until a few weeks ago, I had never heard about the cultural barbarism of breast flattening, a native attempt to delay the development of a girl’s breasts so that they are not “attractive” to men and boys before they are ready for marriage.

Just before a girl reaches puberty her mother will (sorry but please get yourself ready to soldier on with reading this sordid topic) pass a hot instrument, usually a hot wire into the victim’s breasts or pound the victim’s breast with a pestle without any form of anaesthesia or analgesic.

Human rights groups like the German development agency GTZ, and the “Network of Aunties,” a Cameroonian nongovernmental organisation, have described this gruesome mutilation of young girls, that takes place under the cover of culture in parts of Africa, mostly in Cameroon, as “the pounding and massaging of a pubescent girl’s breasts using heated objects in an attempt to make them stop developing or disappear.” In fact, it is reported that up to 26% of Cameroonian girls at puberty are subjected to this treatment, often by their own mothers. Surely, a lot of this is down to ignorance, illiteracy, superstition, and lack of understanding of the pain and emotional torture that they subject their daughters to.

I praise the courage and efforts of the groups both within and outside Cameroon that have challenged the cultural logic that drive uninformed mothers to harm their daughters. It is a shame that the political powers in Cameroon and other parts of Africa where this abhorrent practice exists have not found it fit to legislate against it, enforce the ban, and prosecute defaulters. It must not be allowed to continue. Just as the world rose against female circumcision, so it must collaborate and rise against breast straightening and pounding.

For a start, there urgently needs to be more awareness of this awful practice, followed by the creation of a global register of countries that allow this abhorrent mutilation of underage girls to take place. Then a concerted global consensus to eradicate the practice, as happened with female genital mutilation should be agreed and enforced.

Countries that fail to sign up or comply with the ban should be named and shamed. No “native culture” should be allowed to perpetuate and inflict inhuman mutilation on any segment of the population. Young girls must be allowed to grow to maturity without fear of this happening to them.

Joseph Ana is a medical adviser at the Calabar women’s and children’s hospital, Calabar, and associate professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences, Cross River University of Technology. He is a member of the medical and dental council of Nigeria, and the editor & mentor of BMJ West Africa.