Breast Ironing in Cameroon: A health menace to teenage girls


Breast ironing is the practice of using various objects to massage or press on developing girls’ breasts to discourage growth. It is traditional in several areas of Africa, but notably in Cameroon, affecting 1 in 4 girls, according to a study by the development group Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ). Usually mothers or elders carry on this tradition meant to delay the appearance of sexual maturity and thus, delay sexual predation. The GTZ reports that the devastating psychological and physical health effects include “damaged tissue, open wounds, abscesses, infections, an elevated cancer risk,…difficulties with breastfeeding and trauma.”

As breast ironing is a burgeoning issue, current policy suggestions focus on education and awareness. The United Nation Population Fund (UNFPA) recommends that “governments in affected countries should raise public awareness of the dangers of breast ironing and why it needs to be stopped,” including “frank discussions of sexuality.” RENATA: National Network of Aunties Association (unwed young mothers trained in sexual health) and GTZ have set forth similar policy positions.

While the World Health Organization has strongly recommended against female genital mutilation, it has yet to recognize the related health and human rights violations of breast ironing. Likewise, the Cameroonian Ministry of Health has not acknowledged the practice. Breast ironing should be acknowledged as a violation of women’s health and human rights, while addressing its deep cultural roots. Government and NGOs concerned with women’s rights must recognize it and support public awareness and education campaigns to discourage Cameroonian breast ironing.

For more information:

GTZ Fact Sheet

Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) interview with Tantines

Cameroon girls battle ‘breast ironing’, BBC

News Out of Africa

UNFPA fact sheet



10 Responses to “Breast Ironing in Cameroon: A health menace to teenage girls”

  1. cpalexander Says:

    While I think with issues such as these policies that focus on education and awareness are vital to getting the word out about the possible detrimental sequelae of such practices I can’t help but wonder how effective such policies are. As in the similar case of female genital mutilation I would wonder if education and awareness have statistically significantly affected this practice in a positive direction or if its cultural roots are so deeply embedded that other policies must be thought of and enacted. Same would be true with breast ironing. Having said that, beyond education and awareness I myself cannot suggest other means by which to deter the practice. An important issue, thanks for your post.

  2. ewallace82 Says:

    Wow. It seems backwards to stop girls from “attracting” predatory sexual attention from men by changing their appearance. Many cultures try this, with female-only restrictive dress codes, etc., but it doesn’t seem to be very effective. I hope education could be used to discourage boys from growing into the kind of men who would commit these crimes. It seems a more direct and long-lasting solution.

  3. kndavis Says:

    I am pretty familiar with female circumcision (FC), but had never heard of this practice before. Thank you for giving it some due attention. In contrast to FC which seems to have deep routes in traditional cultures, I got the impression from the video that breast ironing is a more recent development. Either way, education for both parents and children seems to be much needed. However, until the practice is more recognized the likelihood of funding to produce the much needed education is remote.

  4. englishml Says:

    Absolutely shocking. I have never heard of this before this blog. Cpalexander’s post is a great summary of how this dichotomy between official policy and the cultural norms are at odds, and how influencing change will require much more than policy and basic education.

  5. mkornides Says:

    Thank you for bringing attention to this issue. This is the first time I’ve heard about it, and I’m appalled. I agree with one of the other comments in that it doesn’t seem like raising awareness and educating on the issue will be enough to address a practice that has deep cultural roots. I wonder if this is an issue that would benefit from a social marketing campaign designed to target the social norms surrounding the issue. If an NGO that is concerned with women’s rights was able to evaluate the attitudes and beliefs surrounding breast ironing, perhaps it could come up with an effective way to use social marketing to shift the public attitude and perception, so that breast ironing is no longer considered socially acceptable. No doubt this is easier said than done!

  6. htappis Says:

    Thank you for this post, and raising attention of this problem. This is the first I have heard of the practice of breast-ironing and it is both interesting and shocking. In order to fundamentally shift cultural norms on this issue, or any similarly harmful but deeply rooted cultural practice, the movement for change must come from the women and men in Cameroon themselves. I would not be surprised if there are many women who oppose this practice but fear social stigma associated with vocally opposing it and perhaps even allow it to continue for their daughters. This is a very good example to think about the many stages and challenges of behavior change – it would have been very interesting topic for one of our earlier labs. I’m very interested to read more and find out whether this is a common practice in other countries as well.

  7. HealthBlogger Says:

    I have to thank you as well. I have never heard of breast ironing before and it quite an interesting topic! I understand that they are doing this for what they believe is in the girl’s best interest, but it appears that it has done nothing for the real issue. Sometimes deeply rooted social and cultural beliefs are hard to change. It certainly won’t happen over night. What generations upon generations have built, it may take just as many to undo.

  8. anneoshy Says:

    In order to tackle this problem,the main reason for the practice which is prevention of sexual exploitation from the males needs to be addressed.All stakeholders -Women right NGO’s,UNICEF should advocate for a policy against it.The focus should be directed to sex education for the girls with emphasis on dangers of early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.The males should be educated on the danger of STI’s and unplanned pregnancies.Women who have suffered adverse effects should come together to campaign against the practise and also educate the mothers on the harmful effects of breast ironing,and that sex education is a better option to safeguard their daughters chastity.

  9. rockerdocmom Says:

    Thank you, thank you for this topic!!! I am absolutely shocked but not surprised about this practice. I remember my experience as a prepubescent child in Nigeria. My cousins and I discovered we were budding breasts and began beating our breasts with the brooms to keep them from growing. I remember the intense pain. It makes me really sad to learn that this practice is observed in a more severe form in Cameroun. Thanks for enlightening us!

  10. elbrownamp Says:

    A late thank you as well for the information. It seems that most issues involving oppression of women and fear of their sexuality are multifaceted. perhaps a part of the solution would be to delay the emphasis on sex and sexuality by helping communities focus on educating their children. The people would of course have to see tangible benefits from perusing education and the schooling wold have to be financially feasible. But even reaching secondary school would hopefully make difference for boys and girls in terms of their outlook on life and their estimation of the value of life.

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