Technical ReportPDF Available

Understanding Breast "Ironing": A Study of the Methods, Motivations, and Outcomes of Breast Flattening Practices in Cameroon

Authors:
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
1"
UNDERSTANDING BREAST “IRONING”:
A STUDY OF THE METHODS, MOTIVATIONS, AND OUTCOMES OF
BREAST FLATTENING PRACTICES IN CAMEROON
!
By!Rebecca!Tapscott!
May!14,!2012!
Feinstein!International!Center!
"
"
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
2"
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This research was made possible by a generous grant from the Feinstein International Center. I
would also like to acknowledge my appreciation for the support and contributions of the
following people and institutions.
Plan Cameroon, particularly Judith Nkie, Nathalia Ngende, Georges Niatchak, and other Plan
staff for their help designing research questions and translating documents. For my research in
Yaoundé, I would like to thank Dr. Flavien Ndonko of GIZ whose research and insights
informed the bulk of my study, as well as Germain Ngo’o. I would also like to thank the women
of RENATA, notably the Executive Secretary Georgette Taku and Auntie Carlton Wright, who
provided background information on the practice of breast flattening, and helped connect me
with both experts and victims. In Bafut, the Bafut Council and the Secretary General Mr. Ngwa
Samuel Cheneh supported my research and oversaw the coordination of many key interviews.
Adeline Bih provided assistance with translation and companionship in the field. Plan’s Youth
Empowerment through Technology Arts and Media program in Bamessing translated key
documents. I would also like to thank Anna Nebane and her family, who sponsored my stay in
Bafut. Marc Nene assisted with final translation on this report. At the Feinstein International
Center, I thank Peter Walker for his feedback, and especially Dyan Mazurana for her editorial
guidance and assistance in producing the final version of this report. I would also like to thank
the many other local contacts and friends who offered their knowledge and insights, and made
this research possible.
Breast “ironing” or “flattening” is a largely understudied practice. I deeply value any comments
or feedback from readers. These should be sent to <rebecca.tapscott@tufts.edu>
"
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
3"
TABLE OF CONTENTS
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY i
RESUME v
I. INTRODUCTION 1
A. Defining Breast Flattening 1
B. Methodology 3
II. STUDY FINDINGS 5
A. Origins of the Practice 5
B. Methods to Carry Out Breast Flattening 6
C. Practicing Groups and Individuals 9
D. Areas for Additional Research 11
III. IMPACTS OF BREAST FLATTENING 11
A. Biology of Normal Breast Development 11
B. Impacts of Breast Flattening on Physical Health 13
C. Impacts of Breast Flattening on Mental Health 14
D. Impacts of Breast Flattening on Sexual Function 15
E. Reflections on Reported Physical, Psychological, and Sexual Impacts 15
IV. CONTEXT: MOTIVATIONS DERRIVING FROM EVOLVING &
EXISTING SOCIAL CONDITIONS 18
A. Changing Marriage Practices 18
B. Control of Sexual and Reproductive Rights 20
C. Unequal Power Relations between Girls and Men 23
D. Understandings of Human Developmental Stages and Puberty 26
V. BARRIERS TO CHANGE 27
A. Existence of “Belief Traps” and Traditional Practices 27
B. Limited Access to Alternative Options 29
VII. APPROACHES TO END THE PRACTICE 30
A. Advocacy Work by NGOs 30
B. Existing and Proposed Legal Instruments 31
VIII. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS 32
APPENDIX A: LIST OF INTERVIEWS CONDUCTED IN CAMEROON 35
APPENDIX B: INTERVIEW GUIDE 37
"
"
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
i"
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
This report presents the findings of research examining the practice of breast ironing or breast
flattening in Cameroon. Breast ironing or flattening is a practice common in Cameroon and
throughout West Africa whereby an object is used to massage, pound, or press the breasts flat.
The practice generally affects girls between eight to 12-years-of age, commencing when a girl
begins to develop breasts, and is reported to impact approximately a quarter of all girls and
women in Cameroon. The prevalence rate, method, rationale, and reported outcomes vary
significantly by region and individual, and have no proven correlation with socio-economic
level, urban or rural living, religious affiliation, or ethnicity. Breast ironing was first identified
and described by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (the German Society
for International Cooperation, hereafter “GIZ”) as a practice harmful for girl children in
Cameroon. A large scale representative study by GIZ found the prevalence of the practice varies
from a high of 53% in the Littoral region of Cameroon to a low of 7% in the North and Extreme
North regions.
This report presents a summary of findings from original fieldwork and a review of unpublished
academic reports and one quantitative study conducted in all ten regions of Cameroon by GIZ in
2005. My own field research was conducted in the Northwest region of Cameroon, and also in
the capital, Yaoundé. I interviewed individuals and groups of men, women, girls, and boys in
rural and urban communities, as well as key informants who have previously researched breast
“massage” or breast “ironing,” to solicit information on methods used to flatten breasts,
outcomes of flattening breasts, and reasons for flattening breasts.
Methods to Carry Out Breast Flattening
Breast flattening is performed most often by the girl’s own mother, but also by a nurse or
caretaker, aunt, older sister, grandmother, the girl herself and, in a minority of cases, by a
traditional healer, father, brother, cousin, friend, or neighbor. In other research and news reports,
the most commonly cited motivation is to deter unwanted sexual attention from men who may
perceive breasts as a sign of sexual maturity and subsequently may pursue the girl. In the worst-
case scenario, such pursuit may result in early, unwanted pregnancy.
Tools used for breast flattening include a grinding stone, a wooden pestle, a spatula or broom, a
belt to tie or bind the breasts flat, leafs thought to have special medicinal or healing qualities,
napkins, plantain peels, stones, fruit pits, coconut shells, salt, ice, and others. Typically, the
object is heated in the ashes of a wood fire in the kitchen and then applied in a pressing,
pounding, or massaging motion. The heat, style of application, and duration vary by individual
and by region. While some women report a single treatment of heated leafs placed ceremonially
on the breasts, others describe a heated grinding stone used twice a day for weeks or months to
crush the knot of the budding breast.
Impacts of Breast Flattening
Although sources cite a host of negative medical side effects from breast flattening, the lack of
medical research makes it difficult to ascertain the true impacts. To date, no medical studies have
been conducted on flattening breasts, nor the long- and short-term, physical and psychological
side effects. Nonetheless, often cited side effects include an immediate delay or halting of breast
growth; swelling, burning, irritation, pimples on the breasts, abscesses, fever, extreme pain; a
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
ii"
long-term overgrowth of one or both breasts or failure for one or both breasts to grow; difficulty
to breast-feed; scarring; and breast cancer. Additionally, many girls report suffering
psychological distress after experiencing breast flattening, including internalizing blame,
experiencing perpetual fear and shame, or resulting social exclusion.
Reasons for Flattening Breasts
Breast flattening in its current form may have proliferated as a response to a growing social need
to discourage pre-marital sexual activity. Traditional practices of polygyny and bridewealth
illustrate how power dynamics are skewed towards males, and relegate women to the private
sphere. As women gain access to education and careers, there is an increased incentive to marry
later to allow a female to attain a higher level of education before becoming a mother. However,
during the time period between menarche and marriage, a female is fertile and therefore at risk of
becoming pregnant before marriage. Many factors exacerbate the likelihood of early pregnancy,
including limited sex education, unpopularity of contraceptives, illegality of abortion, and an
unequal power relationship between males and females. The cultural stigma against pre-marital
sex and pregnancy remains. In this context, breast flattening may have emerged as a coping
mechanism for females with few options, with the intention of creating the illusion that a
teenager is still a child, in turn allowing the girl to continue her studies and secure a job before
becoming a mother.
Approaches to End the Practice
In Cameroon, GIZ and RENATA are currently advocating against breast flattening. Further,
some groups have petitioned Cameroonian parliamentarians to criminalize the practice.
Cameroon has ratified a number of international instruments to protect human rights, as well as
the rights of women and children, although they remain largely unenforced. At the household
level, girls are increasingly asserting themselves to refuse breast flattening. Internationally,
government and non-governmental reports that mention breast ironing refer to the practice as a
violation of women’s and children’s rights.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Breast flattening is a painful practice considered the norm for many girls who experience it.
However, unlike many other “harmful traditional practices” such as FGC, child marriage, and
bridewealth, breast flattening is conducted with the intent to `protect’ young girls from the risks
and demands of adulthood and promote their future education and welfare. Given that those who
are practicing breast flattening do so in an attempt to promote the well-being of their girls,
outright condemnation the practice or criminalization may not be constructive. Rather, to create
sustainable and positive change, the situation calls for a three-pronged approach that first, raises
awareness and public discussion of the practice; second, educates people on human biology and
the futility of breast flattening; and third, addresses the originating conditions of sexual
exploitation of girls that cuts across economic, social, and regional divisions in Cameroon and
West Africa.
Specific short-term recommendations include:
1. Conduct a second study on breast flattening to determine long-term medical impacts and
current prevalence.
2. Support radio and TV educative adverts on breast flattening.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
iii"
3. Support a nationwide campaign to encourage dialogue between parents and children
about responsible sexual activity, including family planning and the option to use
contraceptives.
4. Support nationwide radio and TV advocacy adverts, directed at adult males, as well as the
population generally, that explain a male’s role and responsibility in creating early and
unwanted pregnancies.
Specific long-term recommendations include:
1. Support a sex education module in public and private schools on the national curriculum.
2. Improve distribution and access to contraceptives.
3. Improve access to legal protection, particularly for minors, for unwanted sexual advances
including exploitation, incest, and rape.
4. Implement international treaties that protect the rights of children and women, including
CEDAW and the CRC, at a national level.
For any approach to be effective, it is necessary to engage the entire community: men, women,
boys and girls, in both rural and urban centers. Moreover, it is necessary that efforts observe how
changes impact individuals and groups, to ensure that changes are positive.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
iv"
RESUME
Ce rapport présente les conclusions d’une étude sur la pratique du repassage des seins ou
aplatissement des seins au Cameroun. Le repassage ou aplatissement des seins est une pratique
courante au Cameroun et en Afrique de l’Ouest qui consiste à l’utilisation d’un objet pour masser
ou piler la poitrine des jeunes filles afin de l’aplatir. Le repassage des seins est généralement
pratiqué sur les jeunes filles entre 8 et 12 ans au moment où commence le développement
physiologique de leur poitrine et environ ’un quart des femmes et filles au Cameroun l’aurait
subi. L’incidence, la fréquence, la méthode utilisée, et les conséquences varient
considérablement selon les régions et les individus, et il ne semble pas associé au niveau socio-
économique, le milieu de résidence urbain ou rural, la religion, ou l’ethnie. La Deutsche
Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (l’Agence Allemande de Coopération
Internationale, ci-après « GIZ ») fut la première à formellement identifier le repassage des seins
comme pratique néfaste pour les jeunes filles au Cameroun. Une enquête représentative de
grande échelle effectuée par la GIZ a révélé une prévalence qui varie entre 53% dans la région
du Littoral et 7% dans les régions du Nord et de l’Extrême-Nord.
Ce rapport résume les résultants de travaux originels sur le terrain, d’une revue de rapports
académiques non publiés et d’une étude quantitative effectuée dans les dix régions du Cameroun
par la GIZ en 2005. Mes travaux personnels sur le terrain ont été effectués dans la région du
Nord-Ouest du Cameroun, et aussi dans la capitale Yaoundé. J’ai interviewé des individus et des
groupes d’hommes, de femmes, de filles et de garçons dans des communautés rurales et
urbaines. J’ai aussi interviewé des informateurs clés ayant déjà effectué des recherches sur le
sujet du « massage » des seins, ou du « repassage » des seins afin de collecter des informations
sur les méthodes utilisées pour aplatir la poitrine, les conséquences de la pratique, et les
motivations de l’aplanissement des seins.
Méthodes pour Aplatir Les Seins
L’aplatissement des seins est pratiquée le plus souvent par la propre mère de la jeune fille, mais
on retrouve aussi des cas où cela est pratiqué par la nourrisse, la tante, la grande sœur, la grand-
mère, ou la fille elle-même. Moins fréquemment, l’aplatissement des seins est effectué par un
guérisseur traditionnel, le père, le frère, la cousine, ou la voisine. Dans d’autres rapports et
articles de journaux, il est souvent rapporté que l’aplatissement des seins est pratiqué afin
d’éviter les attentions sexuelles non désirées des hommes qui pourrait considérer le
développement de la poitrine comme un signe de maturité sexuelle. Dans le pire des cas, cet
attrait des hommes peut aboutir à des grossesses précoces où non désirées.
Les outils utilisés pour aplatissement des seins comprennent la meule de pierre, le pilon de bois,
la spatule ou le balai, une ceinture pour aplatir les seins, des feuilles auxquelles on attribue des
qualités médicinales particulières, des serviettes, des pilles de banane, des pierres, des noyaux de
fruits, des noix de coco, le sel, la glace, et bien d’autres. Typiquement, l’objet est bien chauffé
dans les cendres d’un feu de bois dans la cuisine, puis est utilisé pour presser, masser, ou aplatir
les seins. La température utilisée, la méthode d’application, et la duré de l’application sont
spécifiques et différents dans chaque région et avec chaque personne. Bien que certaines femmes
rapportent des expériences avec des feuilles chauffées et appliquées de façon rituelle sur les
seins, d’autres décrivent l’utilisation de meule bien chauffée, deux fois par jour, pendant des
semaines ou des mois pour écraser le nœud de la poitrine naissante.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
v"
Les Conséquences d’Aplatissement des Seins
Bien que les sources rapportent de nombreux effets négatifs et sérieux pour la santé de
l’aplatissement des seins, il est difficile d’en connaître les conséquences réelles en raison d’un
manque de recherche médicale sur la question. Actuellement, aucune étude médicale n’a été
menée ni sur la pratique, ni sur les effets physique ou psychologique à long-terme où à court-
terme. Néanmoins, les effets secondaires souvent cités sont : un retard immédiat ou un arrêt de la
croissance des seins, des enflures, des brûlures, des irritations, des boutons sur les seins, des
abcès, la fièvre, une douleur extrême, une croissance exagérée ou un échec de développement
d’un des deux seins des difficultés à allaiter, des cicatrices, et le cancer du sein. Par ailleurs,
beaucoup de filles rapportent qu’elles souffrent de détresse psychologique après l’aplatissement
des seins, comme l’internalisation de la culpabilité, le peur et la honte perpétuelle, ou l’exclusion
sociale.
Les Raisons de l’Aplatissement des Seins
Dans sa pratique actuelle, l’aplatissement des seins pourrait s’être développée en réponse à un
besoin social croissant pour décourager les activités sexuelles avant le mariage. Les pratiques
traditionnelles de la polygynie et de la dot montrent que les hommes avaient plus de pouvoir
dans les sphères publiques et sociales, et reléguaient les femmes à la sphère privée. Avec un
accès croissant à l’éducation et au travail professionnel, les femmes préfèrent se marier plus tard
pour d’atteindre un plus haut niveau d’éducation avant la maternité. Toutefois, la femme reste
féconde entre la ménarche et le mariage, et donc à risque de tomber enceinte avant le mariage.
Plusieurs facteurs aggravent le risque de grossesse précoce, y compris le manque d’éducation
sexuelle, l’impopularité des contraceptifs, l’illégalité de l’avortement, et des relations de pouvoir
inégal entre les hommes et les femmes. Dans un contexte où la stigmatisation sociale des
relations sexuelles avant le mariage et des grossesses précoces reste encore forte, l’aplatissement
des seins est peut-être apparue comme un mécanisme d’adaptation pour les femmes disposant de
peu d’options, avec pour intention de créer l’illusion qu’un jeune adolescente est encore une
enfant, afin de permettre à cette dernière de poursuivre ses études et obtenir un emploi avant de
devenir mère.
Les Efforts Pour Arrêter La Pratique
Aujourd’hui, au Cameroun, GIZ et RENATA mène un plaidoyer contre le repassage ou
l’aplatissement des seins. Par ailleurs, d’autres groupes et associations ont signé une pétition
pour la criminalisation de la pratique au Cameroun. Le Cameroun a ratifié un certains nombre de
traités et conventions internationaux protégeant les droits de l’homme, ainsi que les droits des
femmes et des enfants. Cependant, ces traités et conventions ne sont pour la plupart pas mis en
œuvre. Au niveau des ménages, les filles refusent de plus en plus délibérément l’aplatissement de
leurs seins. Au niveau international, des rapports gouvernements et des ONGs qui décrivent la
pratique de l’aplatissement des seins comme une violation des droits des femmes et des enfants.
Conclusions et Recommandations
L’aplatissement des seins est une pratique douloureuse qui est considéré comme normale pour
beaucoup des filles qui en sont victimes. Cependant, contrairement à beaucoup d’autres
« pratiques traditionnelles néfastes » comme l’excision, le mariage précoce, et la dot,
l’aplatissement des seins est effectué dans le but de protéger les jeunes filles contre les risques et
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
vi"
les exigences de la vie des adultes, et de promouvoir l’éducation et le bien-être futur des filles.
Considérant que ceux qui pratiquent l’aplatissement des seins le font dans le but de promouvoir
le bien-être de leurs filles, il est évident que la condamnation pure et simple ou la criminalisation
de la pratique ne peut pas être l’approche la plus constructive. En revanche, pour créer un
changement durable et positif, trois actions sont nécessaires. D’abord, il faut sensibiliser le
public et favoriser un débat public sur la pratique. Ensuite, il faut éduquer les gens sur la biologie
humaine et sur la futilité d’aplatir les seins. Enfin, il est nécessaire de cibler les causes originelles
de l’exploitation sexuelle des filles qui est pratique répandue dans toutes les couches socio-
économiques, et toutes les régions du Cameroun et de l’Afrique de l’Ouest.
Recommandations spécifiques à court-terme :
5. Mener une deuxième enquête sur l’aplatissement des seins pour déterminer les
conséquences médicales, et la prévalence actuelle.
6. Appuyer les annonces éducatives à travers la radio et la télévision sur l’aplatissement des
seins.
7. Appuyer une campagne nationale visant à favoriser le dialogue entre les parents et les
enfants sur la sexualité responsable, et aussi la planification familiale avec l’option
d’utiliser des contraceptifs.
8. Appuyer des annonces à travers la radio et la télévision ciblant les hommes, et aussi la
population en général, pour expliquer le rôle des hommes en tant que responsables des
grossesses précoces et non désirées.
Recommandations Spécifiques à long terme :
5. Appuyer le développement d’un module sur la sexualité responsable dans le programme
d’éducation nationale pour les écoles publiques et privées.
6. Améliorer la distribution et l’accès aux contraceptifs.
7. Améliorer l’accès aux protections juridique, en particulier pour les mineurs, afin de les
protéger contre les avances sexuelles non désirées, comme l’exploitation sexuelle,
l’inceste, et le viol.
8. Mettre en œuvre les traités internationaux qui protègent les droits des enfants et des
femmes, comme la CEDAW et la CRC, au niveau national.
Pour que toute approche soit efficace, il est nécessaire d’engager toute la communauté : hommes,
femmes, garçons et filles, dans les milieux ruraux et urbains. En outre, il est nécessaire que les
efforts pour arrêter la pratique évaluent les impacts sur les individus et les groups afin de garantir
que les changements sont positifs.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
1"
I. INTRODUCTION
This report presents the findings of research examining the practice of breast ironing or
breast flattening in Cameroon. Breast ironing was first identified and described by Deutsche
Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (the German Society for International
Cooperation, hereafter “GIZ”) as a practice harmful for girl children. The practice is found in
Cameroon and surrounding countries in West Africa. This present report seeks to combine
information from previous studies with my own research to understand: a) how and why breast
ironing, or breast flattening as I prefer to call it, is practiced; b) to identify where and by whom it
is practiced; c) to place the practice in a cultural context; d) to identify areas in need of additional
research; e) to inform advocacy and development efforts that combat the practice; f) and to
provide policy and program recommendations to that end. This report is intended for members
of the national and international community working to change harmful indigenous social
practices, to protect women’s and children’s rights, and more broadly, to promote human rights.
A. Defining Breast Flattening
Breast flattening, a practice whereby an object is used to massage, pound, or press the
breasts flat, is common in Cameroon and throughout West Africa. The prevalence rate, method,
rationale, and reported outcomes vary significantly by region and individual, and have no proven
correlation with socio-economic level, urban or rural living, religious affiliation, or ethnicity.
Breast flattening was brought to the attention of the international community as a result of a 2005
nationwide quantitative study conducted by the Cameroonian NGO Réseau National des
Associations des Tantines (the National Network of Aunties, hereafter “RENATA”) and
supported by GIZ under the leadership of Dr. Flavien Ndonko, head of GIZ’s German-Cameroon
Health and AIDS Program, with the assistance of Dr. Germaine Ngo’o who completed her
anthropology dissertation on breast “massage” in 2008. The study (hereafter the “GIZ study”),
interviewed 5,661 girls and women between the ages of 10 and 82 about the topics of “breast
ironing,” rape, and incest in all 10 regions of Cameroon. The research remains unpublished, and
to date, it is the only quantitative study that has been conducted on the practice. This paper seeks
to build off the GIZ study, as well as other unpublished reports by students and researchers.
The GIZ study is important to any understanding of the practice breast ironing in
Cameroon. Major findings of the GIZ study include data on prevalence of the practice by region,
female perceptions of puberty and breast development, who conducts the practice and on whom
it is conducted, tools used, and perceived long and short-term impacts. The GIZ study found that
breast ironing generally affects girls between eight and 12-years-of age, commencing when a girl
begins to develop breasts.1 The study reports that approximately a quarter of all girls and women
in Cameroon had experienced some form of breast ironing in their lives, and that breast ironing
was performed most often by the girl’s own mother (nearly 60% of the time), but also by a nurse
or caretaker, aunt, older sister, grandmother, the girl herself and, in a minority of cases, by a
traditional healer, father, brother, cousin, friend, or neighbor.2 In other research and news
reports, the most commonly cited motivation is to deter unwanted sexual attention from men
who may perceive breasts as a sign of sexual maturity and subsequently, pursue the girl. In the
worst-case scenario, such pursuit may result in early, unwanted pregnancy.
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
1 Ndonko, Flavien and Germaine Ngo'o. "Etude sur le Modelage des Seins au Cameroun." GTZ National Study,
(2006). Hereafter Ndonko, (2006).
2 Ndonko, (2006).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
2"
Breast ironing or flattening has only been studied in Cameroon, although informants have
reported similar practices in West and Central Africa, including Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Togo,
Benin, Guinea-Conakry,3 Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, while others report breast
“sweeping” in South Africa.4 Breast binding or wrapping the chest tightly with a cloth, belt, or
other material is also common across West Africa and often used in conjunction with breast
ironing or flattening.5 The GIZ study reports that breast ironing is most common in the Littoral
region, where 53% of women have undergone the practice. The West and Center regions follow
at 31%. The Adamawa region has a prevalence of 30%, with the Northwest following at 18%,
East at 17%, South at 14%, and Southwest at 11%. The North and Extreme North have the
lowest rates at 7% prevalence.6 Although there is no reported reason for regional variation, local
informants hypothesize that the relatively low rate observed in the North and Extreme North is
due to the higher frequency of early marriage, which eliminates the need to maintain illusions of
a girl’s youth.7
Figure 1: Cameroon
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
3 Eva Aurora Fernández Ortiz, “Why Breast Ironing? Reasons behind this Cameroonian female mutilation” (Master
of Arts in International Journalism, Cardiff School of Journalism, Media & Cultural Studies, 2010).
4 Author’s interviews with community members in Bafut, Bamenda, and Yaoundé, Cameroon (June, July and
August 2011).
5 Although many of the rationale are similar to breast flattening, rationale for breast binding is also often related to
maintaining the shape and lift of a girl's breasts until she is ready to be married. Source: Personal interviews in
Bafut, Cameroon, (August 2011).
6 Flavien Ndonko and Germaine Ngo’o, “Etude sur le modelage des seins au Cameroun” (PowerPoint presented at
the Programme Germano-Camerounais de Santé/SIDA (SRJA), Yaoundé, Cameroun, January 2006).
7 The United States Department of State reports: “Early marriage was prevalent in the northern regions of
Adamaoua, North, and particularly the remote Far North, where many girls as young as nine faced severe health
risks from pregnancies. There were no statistics on the prevalence of child marriage.” Source: U.S. Department of
State, 2010 Human Rights Report: Cameroon, 2010 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (Bureau of
Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, April 8, 2011), 3334,
http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2010/af/154335.htm.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
3"
The GIZ study christened the practice “repassage des seins,” or breast “ironing.” There
has been little subsequent debate on appropriate terminology. Cameroonians who I interviewed
who engage in the practice and have not been sensitized or exposed to media coverage or
activism rarely use a single term, instead saying that they are “sending the breast back from
where it’s coming.”8 The choice of terminology is further complicated because the individual
experience of breast flattening varies significantly. While some women in my sample reported a
single treatment of heated leaves placed ceremonially on the breasts, others described a heated
grinding stone used twice a day for weeks or months to crush the knot of the budding breast. I
believe that the term breast “flattening” encompasses the breadth of relevant practices.
Additionally, flattening is a neutral term between “ironing” which may stigmatize and condemn
those who conduct the practice, and “massage” which does not convey the intention and physical
experience of the practice.9 The choice of a more neutral terminology is intended to avoid
judgment and encourage an open dialogue about this practice, which is rarely discussed in
public.
B. Methodology
The present study’s objective was to better understand the practice of breast flattening,
including how, when, where, and why it is practiced. The research focused on the past and
present motivations for breast flattening, its historical context, cultural foundations, and its
relation to other forms of gender-based norms, such as bridewealth and polygyny. The study
also focused on how and where breast flattening is practiced, the cultural and physical
implications of its practice on individual girls, and its significance in the transition to adulthood.
I conducted field research in the Northwest region of Cameroon, in the Mezam
department, in the villages of Bafut, Ndop, and the city of Bamenda. I also conducted interviews
with experts in Yaoundé. My research was supported by the Feinstein International Center
(“FIC”), Tufts University, and was conducted under the auspices of the development NGO Plan
Cameroon (hereafter “Plan”). Plan helped facilitate my entrance into the community, making of
contacts, and conducting of interviews. According to the GIZ study, the Northwest region of
Cameroon has a middling prevalence rate of breast flattening at 18% among girls and women,
making it a good location to study why some people practice breast flattening while others do
not. I selected Bafut as a location for field research because contacts at both Plan and GIZ
recommended it due to its reputation as a center of culture and tradition.
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
8 Authors interviews, Ndop and Bafut, Cameroon (July and August 2011). Interviews with key informants including
Eva Fernandez Ortiz, Alain Nguidjoï, and Nathalia Ngende support this assertion.
9 This is similar to the distinction between female genital "cutting" and female genital "mutilation."
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
4"
Figure 2: Northwest region, Cameroon
Source: “Bafut City Council: Community Action for Sustainable Development”, n.d., http://bafut-
council.org/tourism.htm.
The town of Bafut is 17 kilometers north of Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest
region. Most adults living in Bafut village have been exposed to city life, speak rudimentary
English, and have completed basic education. On the other hand, the level of infrastructural
development is low: one paved road runs through town and many houses, as well as the
government ministry buildings, lack running water and/or electricity. Most people have
subsistence farms, cultivating cocoyam, beans, plantains, and maize. The average monthly
income is approximately 29,000 CFA (US$55).10 The Northwest region is known for higher
levels of school attendance and the number of girls and boys attending school is almost equal.11
The region is also known for relatively high levels of rape and sexual exploitation. In a 2009
nationwide survey conducted by GIZ in all 10 regions of Cameroon, the Northwest region was
recognized as the region with the second highest rate of rape in the country.12 Whether this is
due to higher levels of sexual violence or higher frequency of reporting incidents is unclear.
I planned to use a snowball sample method to identify interviewees who had experienced
breast flattening, however for a variety of reasons this method proved ineffective. First, many
people did not know of others who had experienced the practice, perhaps because it is generally
kept between mother and daughter, or perhaps interviewees were hesitant to introduce me to
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
10 “Bamenda Programme Unit Where We Work,” Plan International, n.d., http://plan-international.org/where-
we-work/africa/cameroon/where-we-work/bamenda.
11 According to the U.S. State Department’s 2010 Human Rights Report, in 2006, 77% of girls aged six through 14
were enrolled in school, and 88% of boys. Records from the Ngoketunjia department in the Northwest region show
that a ratio of 91:100 girls to boys attended secondary school in 2009-2010. That ratio shrunk to 95:100 girls to boys
in 2010-2011. Withdrawal rates (voluntary leave from school, which would include girls withdrawn for marriage or
to pursue domestic responsibilities) were also almost identical for girls and boys, averaging 3.92% for girls and
4.15% for boys between 2009 and 2011.
U.S. Department of State, 2010 Human Rights Report: Cameroon, 33.
12 Nakinti Nofuru, “Underreporting Leaves Girls Vulnerable to Rape in Cameroon,” Global Press Institute, March 1,
2012, 3, http://www.globalpressinstitute.org/global-news/africa/cameroon/underreporting-leaves-girls-vulnerable-
rape-cameroon?page=3.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
5"
others. Second, I spoke mainly with community members 18 and older, with an average age of
approximately 36. I had intended to interview more children who had recently experienced the
practice, however, this was challenging because I did not want to complicate relationships
between mothers and daughters, and it was also difficult to meet children because they were
mostly in their houses or working. Because most interviewees were older, they and their peers
had experienced breast flattening years or decades ago. Therefore, those contacts were often
unavailable or lost because they were traveling temporarily for summer vacation or had moved
permanently.
Over the course of one month, I collected qualitative data from 75 respondents in semi-
structured and unstructured interviews.13 The Secretary General of Bafut, Samuel Cheneh Ngwa,
arranged for me to meet with the leaders of three women’s groups, one youth group, one
traditional healer, and teachers from around the Bafut subdivision. Additionally, I met people to
interview walking through the village, taking public transportation, and visiting maternal health
clinics. I also interviewed local journalists who had written about breast flattening, and
employees of RENATA, who provided me with personal anecdotes as well as other contacts. I
conducted additional interviews with a doctor, Plan staff, and two anthropologists in Yaoundé.
From those 75 interviews:
77% of interviewees were female;
16% of interviewees had experienced breast flattening;
8% of interviewees had practiced breast flattening;
14% of interviews were held with individuals in their professional capacities,
including four individuals who had researched breast flattening, two experts on
women’s and children’s rights, two journalists who had written stories on breast
flattening, the executive secretary of RENATA, a government official, and one
doctor.14
Interviews were broadly focused on the interviewees’ life experiences, including when they first
became aware of sexual relations, gender perceptions, familial relations, puberty, marriage,
family and individual values, personal aspirations and fears, and any experience with breast
flattening. Due to the sensitive nature of this research, I do not identify any respondents by
name, with exception to key informants speaking in their professional capacities. I carried out
all of the interviews in English, Bafut, pidgin, and French, as preferred by the interviewee.
Challenges encountered in this research included the likelihood of respondent bias, the challenge
of identifying people who had personally experienced breast flattening, and the limited number
of interviewees.
II. STUDY FINDINGS
A. Origins of the Practice
Although there is no literature on the origins of breast flattening, one theory posits that it
developed from the ancient practice of breast “massage.”15 Breast massage is a traditional
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
13 See Appendix A for a list of interviewees, and Appendix B for the interview guide.
14 These are as follows: Anthropologists Flavien Ndonko, and Germaine Ngo’o, Alain Nguidjoï, and Eva Fernandez
Ortiz; Nathalia Ngende (Plan), Omer Songwe, Journalists Randy Joe Sa’ah (BBC) and Constance (Commy) Mussa
(Association Camerounaise pour le Marketing Social), Georgette Taku (RENATA), Haliuma Mohamadou
(Government of Cameroon Administrator) and Dr. Sinou Tchana (OB/GYN).
15 Author’s interview with Ndonko and Ngo’o, (June 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
6"
method for correcting uneven breast size and shape, and is conducted with a heated object using
similar methods to those used for breast flattening.16 Breast massage is also used to induce the
flow of breast milk for a new mother or to relieve pressure during weaning.17 Importantly, in the
case of postpartum breast massage the intent is not to crush the mammary gland, but rather to
warm and massage the breast to heat and purify the breast milk.18 Ndonko (personal interview
2011), Ngo’o (2008) and Nguidjoï (2008) suggest that Cameroonians may have repurposed these
longstanding traditional practices of breast shaping and massage to flatten girls’ developing
breasts.
B. Methods to Carry Out Breast Flattening
A variety of methods are used in breast flattening. Tools used for breast flattening include
a grinding stone, a wooden pestle, a spatula or broom, a belt to tie or bind the breasts flat, leaves
thought to have special medicinal or healing qualities, napkins, plantain peels, stones, fruit pits,
coconut shells, salt, ice, and others.19 Typically, the object is heated in the ashes of a wood fire in
the kitchen and then applied in a pressing, pounding, or massaging motion. The heat, style of
application, and duration vary by individual and by region.20 The most common description in
the Northwest region requires a wooden pestle, approximately three feet long, be heated in the
coals of a wooden fire. The pestle should be hot to the touch. Then, the end of the pestle is used
to push and press the breasts for some minutes. One woman demonstrated this process for me at
my request:
“She took me into her kitchen, a brick structure with a dirt floor and wood fire
burning in the middle of the room next to a bed covered in dirty cloths. On the
fire was a huge metal pot. She pushed the pot aside and took the wooden pestle
used for making achu. She put the pestle over the fire so that the center of it was
in the embers, and turned it around for perhaps 15 or 20 seconds. A wisp of
smoke came up from the pestle. She then took the pestle, and pulled down the top
of her dress to reveal her own bare chest, took the ends of the pestle in both
hands, and rolled it over her breasts in a downward motion.”
Ngo’o describes the practice carried out using a hot stone from a qualitative study she
conducted in Bafia in 2008 for her dissertation in Anthropology at University of Yaoundé I:
“The object is placed on the coals in the fireplace and when well heated, it is
placed and pressed on the breasts of the girl who has previously been sleeping on
the bed, kept there by one or more than one individual strong enough to be able to
immobilize her during the operation. It is important to immobilize the girl,
otherwise at the first contact with the heated stone she could [try to] flee because
of the extreme pain it causes. The massager extracts the tool from the fire, taking
care to protect her hands with a towel before pressing and turning on each breast
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
16 Author’s interviews with Ndonko and Ngo’o, (June 2011) and women’s group in Manka’a, Bafut (August 2011).
17 Author’s interview with Ndonko and Ngo’o, (June 2011).
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid.
20 Personal interviews in Northwest region, Cameroon, (June, July and August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
7"
of the girl…When the stone is not hot enough, it is replaced in the fire and
massaging recommences three or four times each session.”21
Although no one I interviewed mentioned restraints, when the object is very hot the
practice is reportedly quite painful, particularly because the heat of the pestle burns the skin, and
because the breasts are sensitive organs. One woman reported:
“My mother told me to flatten my own breasts, but it was too painful, so I didn’t. I
feared the pain of the heat on my skin.”22
Dr. Sinou Tchana, a gynecological obstetrician responsible for adolescent health programs in
Yaoundé, has advocated against breast flattening and served a number of patients. She recounted
the story of one woman who didn’t realize the pain she must be causing her daughter until she
burned her own hand:
“One mother burned her own hand so badly that she came to the hospital. Only
when she saw what happened to her own hand did she realize how painful the
practice must be for her daughter, who was feeling this hot stone on her breasts,
which are much more sensitive than the palm.”23
Figure 3: Tools used for breast flattening. Left: mortar and pestle; right: grinding stone. The GIZ study found
that a pestle is used 17% of the time, and a grinding stone is used 20% of the time. Other tools include a spatula or
broom (24%), leaves (9%), napkins (5%), and other (25%).
Source: Photos by Rebecca Tapscott (Bafut, August 2011).
By coincidence or design, the methods and tools for flattening breasts reflect those of
preparing traditional foods that have a smooth consistency. For example, in the Northwest, the
most commonly used tool to flatten breasts is a pestle, which is also used for preparing the local
dish, fufu. Fufu is made by boiling corn or manioc, and then pounding in a mortar with pestle
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
21 Germaine Ngo’o, “Étude Anthropologique du ‘Modelage des Seins’ Chez les Bangangte” (Department of
Anthropology, Faculty of Arts, Letters and Social Sciences, University of Yaoundé I, 2008), 36.
22 Personal interview with 25-year-old woman, Yaoundé, Cameroon (June 2011).
23 Author’s interview with Dr. Sinou Tchana, Yaoundé, Cameroon (August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
8"
until smooth. It is essential to pound the fufu when it is very hot, or the final product will have
lumps. Similarly, a grinding stone is used to smash hot peppers and other spices into a smooth
paste. A number of interviewees described breast flattening as warming and softening the tissues
of the breast so they could be dispersed or spread flat.
“When you are young, there is a hard knot or ball in the breast, and the goal of
breast massaging is to make it go away.” [Respondent made a motion with her
hand, starting balled up as a fist that she opened to splay her fingers and palm
flat across her breast.]24
“Heating helps [shape breasts] because if there are any lumps of blood or flesh it
heats up the blood and makes it soften.”25
A traditional healer also explained:
“They use the pestle [to flatten breasts] because it is used to grind spices, and
other things, and `scatters.’ They do this on the knot of the breast to flatten it.”26
From these statements, it appears that people believe that the selected tool can transform breast
tissue in the same way as other substances, where heat and force help soften and break up
substances such that they can be dispersed. On the other hand, it is also possible that these are the
tools women have most easily at hand.
A variety of traditions and superstitions surround breast flattening. Ndonko and Ngo’o
reported a region where a coconut shell is heated and used to press the breasts. People believe
that for the flattening to work, the used shell must be thrown at a boy of the girl’s same age so as
to transfer the boy’s flat-chest to the girl. In another region, Ngo’o explained that the girl child is
required to hug her bare chest to the trunk of a banana tree, and turn her body vigorously around
the trunk, with the belief that her chest will become straight and flat like the trunk of the banana
tree. A traditional leader in Bamessing explained that some traditional healers also use a blade to
make small cuts on the breasts and apply special potions while reciting incantations to deter the
growth of the breasts.27 In the Northwest region, it is common to make the girl lie beneath a bed
during the procedure so no one can watch the procedure, so that the girl cannot escape, or simply
because it is believed to be an integral component for the flattening to be successful.28 Some
reports also describe the mother lying beneath the bed while the girl sits cross-legged on the floor
in front of her. From this position, the mother uses a wooden pestle to press the breasts, either
using the pestle lengthwise to roll the breasts, as with a rolling pin for cooking, or the head of the
pestle to prod the breasts.29
Duration and frequency of breast flattening sessions varies. Most women reported that
the sessions lasted for between 10 and 15 minutes, although one traditional nurse told me that 10
minutes was far too long for one session. Some women report that flattening occurs twice per
day, morning and evening, for weeks or even months, while others report a single instance. One
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
24 Author’s interview with a 25-year-old woman, Yaoundé, Cameroon (June 2011).
25 Author’s interview with a 45-year-old woman, Bafut, Cameroon (August 2011).
26 Author’s interview with a 51-year-old male traditional healer, Bafut, Cameroon (August 2011).
27 Author’s interview with Traditional Healer in Bamessing, Cameroon (June 2011).
28 Author’s interviews with community members in Bafut and Bamenda, Cameroon (August 2011).
29 Author’s interview with women’s group in Manka’a, Bafut (August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
9"
woman told me that her aunt explained that it is necessary to massage the breasts until it no
longer hurts the girl, and then it is time to stop.30 Another woman reported that after two weeks,
the breasts go away and then it is time to stop. Time of day also varies. One woman told me the
story of a girl whose mother only performed the practice between 5 a.m. and daybreak, perhaps
believing that the practice must be done at that time of day to be effective. The girl was therefore
able to avoid the procedure by hiding at that specific time. A number of women reported that a
father or another adult intervened to stop the practice when they learned that it was being carried
out. One young woman told me:
“When I was 14, my father asked my mother to do it to me. His parents had
suggested it to him. My mother refused because she was afraid that in the future,
my breasts would either not grow, or would grow much too large. After this, my
father took me to Bamenda with him. Maybe it was to protect me…”31
Another woman’s grandmother flattened her breasts on two occasions, using heated leaves.
“The second time, someone came to the door while she was doing it, and I
scrambled to put my dress back on. While my grandmother was talking to the
person at the door, my father came in. My grandmother never did it again.”32
All women who had experienced breast flattening reported not knowing what was
going to happen before the practice was done to them. They received limited
explanations, simply that “you are growing breasts and you are still a child.”33 A number
of women who I interviewed who had practiced breast flattening concurred that
explaining the reasons for breast flattening is a bad idea, because it might encourage the
girl to talk to men, or make her frightened of men. One woman summarized, “The best
approach is simply to tell a girl that she is too little to have breasts.”34
C. Practicing Groups and Individuals
There is no evidence in any of the research I reviewed nor in my own findings to indicate
that breast flattening has any correlation with religion, ethnicity, wealth, or formal education.
This could be due to the limited research. However, if there were a strong correlation between
any of these factors and breast flattening, it seems that through my own qualitative research and
the GIZ study, some relationship would have emerged, but none has. Many interviewees stated
that people with “village mentalities” practice breast flattening, meaning women who have not
been exposed to cosmopolitan ideas of children’s rights, women’s equality, and biological
development. However, data show that the practice is not limited to rural areas or poor families
and the hypothesis linking the practice to urbanization actually indicates the opposite. Numerous
anecdotes relate that the wives of parliamentarians and ministers flatten the breasts of their own
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
30 Author’s interview with 26-year-old woman, Bafut, Cameroon (August 2011).
31 Author’s interview with 26-year-old woman, Bafut, Cameroon (August 2011).
32 Author’s interview with 38-year-old female teacher, Bafut, Cameroon (August 2011).
33 Author’s interview with 41-year-old woman, Bafut, Cameroon (August 2011).
34 Author’s interview with 45-year-old female nurse, Bafut, Cameroon (August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
10"
daughters without the knowledge of their husbands.35 In terms of who performs the practice, the
GIZ study reports:
7%: the girl herself;
7%: the grandmother;
9%: the aunt;
9%: the older sister;
10%: a nurse or caretaker;
58%: the mother.
Three of the women I interviewed reported performing breast flattening on themselves. The
women who reported self-flattening explained that it was difficult to do a good job and to
maintain the practice because of the pain. In a qualitative study conducted in Bafia, Ngo’o’s
interviewees expressed the same sentiment: “It is the mother who does it because the child is
frightened. The child can do it herself. But if you leave her to do it herself, because it hurts, she
won’t do it well.”36 I found no descriptive differences between breast flattening as practiced by
the mother or other female family members. Only one woman reported that she had heard
second hand about a father flattening the breasts of is daughter, and in this case, the woman
reported that the man had his daughter lie under the bed while he hit the mattress with a pestle,
such that the girl was not actually physically harmed. In some communities, the youngest boy
child, the mother, or a friend of the mother is recruited to bite the girl’s breasts to shock her and
halt the growth of breasts.37 When it is the youngest brother, Ngo’o reports that the belief is that
the boy child will symbolically transfer his flat chest to his sister via the small bites, similar to
the beliefs associated with coconut shells and the banana tree.
Breast flattening appears to be a “treatment” for early breast development rather than a
“tradition.” Evidence for this claim includes first, that the practice is more likely to be
performed on girls who develop early, second, it is often not performed on all daughters in a
given family, and third, women who have experienced the practice themselves often do not
continue the practice. First, the GIZ study found that breast flattening is twice as likely to be
practiced on girls who start to develop breasts before the age of nine than those who develop
after the age of nine, indicating that when breasts appear later in life, a girl is less likely to
experience breast flattening. My qualitative interviews support this, with one of the most
common explanations for performing the practice being that a girl has started to develop “too
early.” Second, breast flattening is often performed on the daughters who mature earliest in a
given family, and not on the others. One woman I interviewed was one of a set of triplets, all of
whom survived. She said that she and her identical twin both were subjected to breast flattening,
while the third fraternal sister was not, ostensibly because she and her sister developed earlier.38
Another woman explained to me that she practiced breast flattening on one daughter who
developed earlier than the others, because she needed it, while for the others, there was no
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
35 A particularly poignant anecdote related by Dr. Ndonko related that a government minister in Yaoundé learned of
the practice from GIZ, and upon returning home and sharing the news with his wife, learned that she had performed
breast flattening on their daughter. Source: Author’s interview with Ndonko and Ngo’o, (June 2011).
36 Ngo’o, “Étude Anthropologique du ‘Modelage des Seins’ Chez les Bangangte,” 33.
37 Ibid., 34.
38 Author’s interview with a young lawyer in Bamenda, Cameroon (August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
11"
need.39 Finally, no one who I interviewed reported both personally experiencing breast flattening
and practicing breast flattening on another person, and only one woman out of the 12 who
experienced breast flattening said she would consider using breast flattening on a daughter in the
future. Additionally, of those who experienced breast flattening, only this woman believed that
breast flattening had also been practiced on her mother. The others stated that they doubted that
whoever did the practice to them had experienced it themselves.40 Although the GIZ study found
that 17% of women would use breast flattening on their daughters, it does not specify whether
these women experienced the practice themselves or not. Taken together, these insights imply
that for many, the practice is used as a treatment for a specific observation, as opposed to a rite
of passage or traditional ceremony.
D. Areas for Additional Research
There have been no subsequent large-scale, quantitative studies on breast flattening since
the 2005 GIZ study so it is unknown whether the practice is increasing or decreasing in
prevalence, let alone whether recent advocacy efforts to curb the practice have had any impact.
Qualitative interviews indicate that the practice is decreasing, however, this limited evidence is
less than convincing in light of the GIZ study, which found that 22% of respondents believed
that breast flattening was average or widespread in practice, while 47% believed that breast
flattening was not practiced anymore or rare.41,42 The practice is generally kept between mother
and daughter, and thus, individuals who do not practice remain unaware of its prevalence.
Additional research could provide significant insights as to the social, cultural, religious,
economic, or ethnic components of who engages in or rejects the practice. It would also be
helpful to understand whether the practice is increasing or decreasing in prevalence and why;
what, if any, are the significant long-term health consequences; and how consequences differ
depending on the method employed. Finally, it would be helpful to continue research on the
origins and diffusion of this practice, particularly if it is passed from mother to daughter, skips
generations, or proliferates in some other pattern.
III. IMPACTS OF BREAST FLATTENING
A. Biology of Normal Breast Development
Although sources cite a host of negative medical side effects from breast flattening,43 the
lack of medical research makes it difficult to ascertain the true impacts. It is helpful to briefly
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
39 Author’s interview with a 52-year old mother, Bafut (August 2011).
40 Author’s interviews, (July and August 2011).
41 Based on author’s own research and interviews of over 60 Cameroonians in July and August 2011.
42 The study referred to the practice as breast “ironing” or breast “massage” and found that 25% of respondents
reported that they “don’t know” about the scope of the practice. Source: Ndonko and Ngo’o, “Etude sur le modelage
des seins au Cameroun.” Additionally, one woman who I interviewed told me within the span of five minutes that
breast flattening is no longer practiced, and then that she flattened the breasts of her nice no more than three years
ago. Source: Author’s interview with 52-year-old mother, Ndop, (July 2011).
43 Ndonko (2006), Flavien Ndonko and Georgette Taku, “Aunties” for Sexual Health and Non-violence: How
Unwed Young Mothers Can Become Advocates, Teachers and Counsellors in Cameroon, German HIV Pracitce
Collection (Eschborn, Germany: The German HIV Practice Collection (GHPC), October 2010), 9., GIZ, Female
Genital Mutilation in Cameroon (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ), November 2007),
2, www.gtz.de/en/dokumente/en-fgm-countries-cameroon.pdf., Ortiz, “Why Breast Ironing? Reasons behind this
Cameroonian female mutilation.”, Alain Médard Nguidjoï, “Analyse du Phenomene de ‘Repassage des Seins’ des
Jeunes FIlles en Milieu Urbain: Cas de la Ville de Yaoundé” (Department of Andragogy, National Institute of Youth
and Sports, Ministry of Sports and Physical Education, 2008).Nicholas Mukama and Irénée Domkam, Breast
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
12"
review normal breast biology to understand possible
effects of breast flattening. Breasts are a secondary sex
characteristic of females and not directly a part of the
reproductive system. Breasts develop and change at
specific times over the course of a female’s life, first
forming during fetal development, changing at puberty,
and again at childbearing years, during menstruation,
and finally, at menopause.44 The breast consists of two
main types of tissue: glandular and supporting. The
glandular tissues develop during puberty and consist of
ducts and lobules. In women who are breastfeeding, the
lobules produce milk that is carried the nipple via the
ducts, as seen in figure 4. The supporting tissues of the
breast include the underlying pectoral muscle, fibrous
tissue, blood vessels, nerves, and lymph vessels.45 There
are no muscles in the breasts; muscles lie beneath the
breast on top of the ribs.
Damage to any of the breast tissues or vessels
can result in benign or acute complications. Common
benign breast conditions include benign breast tumors
and solitary lumps, fibrocystic changes (changes in
breast texture, experienced by more than 50% of
women), nipple problems and discharge, and infections
or inflammation. These conditions are common: most
women experience physiological breast changes, such as
minor tenderness, swelling, and lumpiness in relation to
menstrual cycles or hormone changes. Fat necrosis, a
condition that often develops in response to a bruise or
blow to the breast, causes non-malignant, painless, firm
lumps to develop. Lymph vessels collect plasma and
other fluids that leak from the vascular system and
transport those fluids back from the tissue to the
circulatory system. If lymph vessels are non-functioning,
these fluids cannot be drained. This can cause edema, or swelling resulting from fluid retention.
Other conditions, such as mastitis, resulting from blocked milk ducts, causes the breasts to
"""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
Ironing in Cameroon: An Overview for Fair Fund (Yaoundé, Cameroun: Jeunesse Horizon, August 2007), 5., Jamie
Rich, “Breast Ironing, a Painful Practice for Cameroon’s Girls,” The Washington Post (Douala, Cameroon, March 7,
2010), sec. Outlook.
44 “Normal Breast Development,” Database, Ohio State: Wexner Medical Center, n.d.,
http://medicalcenter.osu.edu/patientcare/healthcare_services/breast_health/normal_breast_development/Pages/index.
aspx.
45 “What Is Normal Breast Tissue and What Does It Do?,” Topics: Non-Cancerous Breast Conditions, American
Cancer Society, September 27, 2011, http://www.cancer.org/Healthy/FindCancerEarly/WomensHealth/Non-
CancerousBreastConditions/non-cancerous-breast-conditions-normal-breast-tissue.
Figure 4: Normal breast biology
Source: “Normal Breast Development,”
Database, Ohio State: Wexner Medical
Center.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
13"
become cracked and sore. A recommended treatment for this is massage with a warm compress
to unblock the duct.46
The rate at which breasts develop varies significantly for different women. On average,
breasts are developing increasingly early worldwide. Guidelines in the United States propose that
breast development before the age of seven for Anglo girls and six for African-American girls be
considered abnormally early.47 In Cameroon, average age of maturation has decreased by
approximately three months each decade.48 The GIZ study reports that the average age of breast
development is now 12.25 years-of-age. The estimated age of menarche for urban girls in
Cameroon is 13.18 years and for rural girls is 14.27 years-of-age.49
B. Impacts of Breast Flattening on Physical Health
To date, no medical studies have been conducted on flattening breasts, nor the long- and
short-term, physical and psychological side effects. Among interviewees, such speculation
abounds as to whether in the short-term the practice really does flatten breasts, and whether in
the long-term flattened breasts grow normally, do not grow at all, or grow much larger than they
would have without flattening.50 Often cited side effects include an immediate delay or halting
of breast growth; swelling, burning, irritation, pimples on the breasts, abscesses, fever, extreme
pain; a long-term overgrowth of one or both breasts or failure for one or both breasts to grow;
difficulty to breast-feed, scarring, and breast cancer.51 However, in the GIZ survey, only 8% of
respondents reported suffering a related illness, while 18% reported that their breasts “fell” or
“sagged” earlier than normal.52 Over the past four years, Dr. Sinou Tchana, a gynecological
obstetrician in Yaoundé who provides services to victims of breast flattening, reported observing
two cases of second degree burns, one of which required a skin graft, multiple cases of first
degree burns. Burns are classified by depth. A first-degree burn is limited to the outer layer of
skin and takes approximately one week to heal. A second-degree burn damages the outer layer
and the layer beneath, is identifiable by red and white coloration, blood, and blistering, and can
take over three weeks to heal. There are no complications associated with first degree burns,
while second degree burns can result in local infection, inflammation of connective tissues, and
scarring.53 Doctors often prescribe antibiotics for burns to prevent infection, however, in rural
communities this service is often unavailable. Additionally, girls may not have access to
healthcare for a variety of reasons. Dr. Tchana also reported multiple cases of edema resulting in
overgrown or swollen breasts, severe wounds, and severe pain.54 It is difficult to confirm or deny
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
46 “Normal Breast Development.”
47 PB Kaplowitz and SE Oberfield, “Reexamination of the Age Limit for Defining When Puberty Is Precocious in
Girls in the United States: Implications for Evaluation and Treatment.,” Pediatrics 104, no. 4 Pt 1 (October 1999):
Abstract.
48 P. Pasquet et al., “Age at Menarche and Urbanization in Cameroon: Current Status and Secular Trends,” Annals of
Human Biology 26, no. 1 (1999): 89.
49 Ibid., 91.
50 Ndonko and Ngo’o, “Etude sur le modelage des seins au Cameroun.” and personal interviews in Northwest
region, Cameroon, (July and August 2011).
51 Ibid.
52 Ibid.
53 National Institute of General Medical Sciences NIH, “Burns,” Database, MedlinePlus, March 30, 2012,
http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/burns.html.
54 Sinou Tchana, “Gynecological Obstetrician Responsible for the Adolescent Health Program/ Vice President of the
Cameroon Women Doctors Association”, August 24, 2011.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
14"
the accuracy or frequency of reported side effects, particularly long-term effects, without
conducting medical examinations.
A variety of cancer treatments have explored methods for deterring development of or
killing cancer cells. Hyperthermia is a cancer treatment that uses localized heat of between 40°C
and 45°C to damage cancer cells and make them more susceptible to other treatments, such as
radiation. Typically, the treatment is conducted with the patient under general anesthesia, and in
conjunction with another treatment, including radiation or chemotherapy.55 Marybeth Singer, a
nurse practitioner at Tufts Medical Center, posited that applying this level of heat to the exterior
of the breast would result in a third degree burn. A burn of this degree would destroy the skin,
cause exceptional pain, and require immediate treatment or risk deadly infection. This sort of
short-term consequence has not been reported in association with breast flattening. Singer also
noted that severe long-term impacts would almost certainly be reflected in a loss of breast
function, such as difficulty breastfeeding. This also has not been reported.56 It is apparent that
further study is necessary to understand the range of possible impacts. Dr. Peggy Porter, a
cytopathologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington,
explained that when it comes to breast flattening “we can only conjecture that there would be
changes…Even if you don’t get changes in development or in growth, you’ve created an
inflammatory milieu, or atmosphere in the breast, which could cause fat necrosis—an
inflammation, not an infection.”
C. Impacts of Breast Flattening on Mental Health
Key informants told me that many girls suffer psychological distress after experiencing
breast flattening, including internalizing blame, experiencing perpetual fear and shame, or
resulting social exclusion. Tchana explained that girls interpret the procedure as a punishment for
displeasing their parents. In this case, a victim is unable to understand what she did to merit the
punishment, and why she, not her friend or her sister, experienced the painful treatment.57
Additionally, girls who undergo this practice for long periods of time may experience a state of
perpetual fear, causing academic performance, among other responsibilities, to suffer.58 Some
reports explain that girls subjected to the practice have fled their homes and taken refuge with
neighbors, only to reify their parents’ fears and become victims of rape or sexual exploitation.59
Dr. Flavian Ndonko, author of the GIZ study, explained that the practice has negative
psychological impacts because it gives a girl the idea that she should not have breasts, and this
can cause anxiety, shame, and frustration when breasts develop at a later age.60 Alain Nguidjoï,
who researched breast flattening in Yaoundé in 2008, wrote “the practice can cause depression or
cause the child to withdraw into herself, deciding to close herself off from the outside world.
This further thickens the wall of silence that surrounds the practice. There is also the feeling of
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
55 American Cancer Society, “Hyperthermia,” Treatment Types, August 30, 2011,
http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/TreatmentTypes/hyperthermia.
56 Ndonko and Ngo’o, “Etude sur le modelage des seins au Cameroun.”
57 Tchana, “Gynecological Obstetrician Responsible for the Adolescent Health Program/ Vice President of the
Cameroon Women Doctors Association.”
58 Author’s interview with Alain Nguidjoï, who studied breast flattening in Yaoundé, Cameroon for the Ministry of
Youth Affairs (August 2011).
59 Author’s interview with Flavien Ndonko and Germaine Ngo’o, Yaoundé (June 2011).
60 Ndonko and Ngo’o, “Etude sur le modelage des seins au Cameroun.”
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
15"
rejection, because of how the girls interpret their personal experience.”61 Nguidjoï also argues
that in the case that breast flattening completely destroys a girl’s breasts she can become a social
pariah and lose self-confidence.62
Personal interviews conducted during the course of my research revealed mixed
responses. While some interviewees appeared to be quite upset about the experience, most
described it as an inexplicable, albeit painful, event in the course of their lives.63 Georgette Taku,
Executive Director of RENATA, explained that women block out the memory and don’t
associate breast flattening with any maladies they might have at a later age.
“[Women who experienced breast flattening as children] now understand—but
until someone sensitizes them and they are able to talk about it, they don’t even
associate the problems they have with their early experience. Sometimes they
even forget that it happened to them.”64
This was reflected in my own interviews: at the beginning of an interview, women hesitated to
admit that they had personally experienced breast flattening, or denied experiencing pain. Yet
after talking for 20 or 30 minutes, many changed their original statements and recalled that the
experience was extremely painful and upsetting. The change in narrative indicates that many
women who suffered the practice are hesitant to speak about, and have unpleasant associations
regarding, the practice.
D. Impacts of Breast Flattening on Sexual Function
Many reports and anecdotes also indicate that breast flattening has a long-term negative
impact on sexual experience, arguing that it can cause a woman to become frigid or fear
breastfeeding future children.65 Men whom I interviewed argued that breasts are a component of
sexual relationships, and their destruction permanently detracts from a woman’s sexual
experience. Interestingly, women did not echo this sentiment. This argument presumes that
breast flattening has a long-term impact on the appearance of breasts, which is uncertain.
E. Reflections on Reported Physical, Psychological, and Sexual Impacts
Because there has never been a medical study of the practice, assertions about impacts
are based on personal observations by a handful of physicians, speculation or individual
testimonies, which are insufficient to verify breast flattening as a causal factor for the later
development of health problems including cysts, abnormal breast growth, pain, and difficulty
breast-feeding.66 In fact, the long-term impacts of breast flattening are ambiguous, as shown by
four main points: first, existing medical research on acute breast trauma does not support
associated long-term health consequences; second, contradictory testimonies about the intended
outcomes of similar methods; third, personal opinion about the long-term physical outcomes of
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
61 Author’s translation. Source: Nguidjoï, “Analyse du Phenomene de ‘Repassage des Seins’ des Jeunes FIlles en
Milieu Urbain: Cas de la Ville de Yaoundé,” 2526.
62 Ibid., 26.
63 Note that most interviewees were young adult women, with those having personally experienced breast flattening
having an average age of approximately 31, and were thus recalling an event from years before. Negative
psychological effects may have faded over the years.
64 Author’s interview with Georgette Taku, Executive Secretary of RENATA in Yaoundé (June 2011).
65 Nguidjoï, “Analyse du Phenomene de ‘Repassage des Seins’ des Jeunes FIlles en Milieu Urbain: Cas de la Ville
de Yaoundé,” 25.
66 Author’s interviews with medical practitioners in Bafut and Bamenda, Cameroon (August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
16"
breast flattening are split; and fourth, rates of breast cancer are no higher in Cameroon than other
African countries.
On the first point, very few studies have examined breast trauma. Those that exist in
mainly examine the outcomes of single or multiple acute traumas resulting from car accidents or
falls. These studies suggest that long-term complications arising from injuries are rare or
nonexistent. However, breast flattening often occurs repeatedly, which may exacerbate impacts.
Until a medical study is conducted to compare health outcomes between women who have
experienced breast flattening and women who have not, such studies can only serve as a very
rudimentary proxy for the possible impacts of breast flattening.67 It is possible to incur first or
second degree burns that cause permanent scarring, as observed by Dr. Tchana in Yaoundé.
A second argument that discounts long-term effects of breast flattening, be they positive,
negative, or neutral, is that similar practices are employed to flatten and to augment breasts. For
example, some women attempt to flatten the breasts with a warmed pestle, almost as if rolling
out dough with a rolling pin, while others use the pestle to tap the breasts so that they will “come
out.” One woman, a 30-year-old mother of three, explained:
“My friends told me I could get a pestle used for making achu [a local food] and
hit the breasts to make them come out. Some of my friends were doing this for
each other. But some people said it made them stop growing too—so it was hard
to know.”68
Another example is a method whereby ants bite the breasts to make them stop growing.
However, other girls use the bite of a “water boatman” to make the breasts swell and grow.
Third, the long-term impact of breast flattening on the size and shape of breasts is
contested. The GIZ study found that 42% of women surveyed believed breasts grow normally
after breast flattening has occurred, 39% believe they grow smaller, and 19% believe that they
grow larger than they would have without the flattening procedure.69 A self-reported negative
outcome of the procedure is sagging breasts, or loss of structural integrity. This was reported by
18% of respondents to the GIZ study, while only 8% reported suffering some other negative
outcome.70 These findings may indicate that the outcomes of breast flattening are unpredictable.
However, it is also possible that the practice has a negligible impact on breast development, and
the variation in reported outcome reflects women’s propensity to cite breast flattening as an
explanation for self-perceived imperfections.
Finally, higher rates of breast cancer in younger patients (i.e. in Cameroon and other
West African countries) would support the claim of long-term health complications due to breast
flattening. Although this is difficult to measure due to incomplete statistics on cancer patients as
well as breast flattening, reported rates of cancer in Cameroon are on par with the rest of Africa,
at 27.9 per 100,000; while in Uganda, the rate is 22 per 100,000 and in Nigeria it is 116 per
100,000.71 Rates have increased dramatically in the past decade, although they remain much
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
67 It is important to note, however, that these traumas generally occur once, rather than repeatedly as in the case of
breast flattening. Source: Jean McDougall, “a Few Follow up Questions on Breast Development”, August 18, 2011.
68Author’s interview with a 30-year-old mother of three in Bafut village, (August 2011).
69 Ndonko and Ngo’o, “Etude sur le modelage des seins au Cameroun.”
70 Ibid.
71 J.D. Kemfang Ngowa et al., “Breast Cancer Profile in a Group of Patients Followed up at the Radiation Therapy
Unit of the Yaounde General Hospital, Cameroon,” Obstetrics and Gynecology International 2011 (June 10, 2011):
1.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
17"
lower than in developed countries, where age standardized rates are three times higher.72
Researches credit this rise in breast cancer to increasingly westernized lifestyles, as well as an
increase in reporting.73 Therefore, the health outcomes of breast flattening are unknown and
merit additional study.
To better understand the long-term medical impacts of the practice, it would be necessary
to conduct a large-scale quantitative study comparing women who have undergone breast
flattening to those who have not. Such a study would have to account for the level of breast
flattening experienced by each respondent, categorized into levels of damage, and include
measures for the physical appearance of breasts; functional and sensory changes, including
chronic pain, lactation, and breast pain with menses; psychological sequelae, including anxiety,
depression, fear, and sexual dysfunction; incidence of breast health issues, including fibrocystic
breast disease, lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), and invasive
breast cancers, as well as any skin cancers. Ideally, such a study would collect biopsies for
analysis, however financial and physical costs might make this impossible. Additionally, a
prospective study that focuses on collecting data from girls and following them into their adult
years to gather data would have the benefit of more accurate information about the practice, but
likely high attrition rates, while a retrospective study focusing on a sample of adult women could
be conducted more quickly, but would suffer from poor recollection, and exclude any women
who died of related or unrelated causes.
Additional medical study would assist campaigns to end the practice—limited
understanding of health outcomes and the risk of sensationalism hamper current campaigns,
making them unconvincing to females that practice breast flattening. Consider the response to
health campaigns against female genital cutting (FGC), where virtually all women in practicing
communities above initiation age live with the impacts of FGC. Therefore, the outcomes that
development practitioners describe as “health complications” are understood as the female
experience. Additionally, the individuals who elect to share their stories are often those who have
had unusually bad experiences, resulting in lurid reports that fail to reflect the average
experience, and therefore can undermine the credibility of campaigns in the eyes of locals.
Others underreport common symptoms because they are viewed as “normal.”74 Hanny
Lightfoot-Klein observed this in her studies of FGC in Sudan, where infibulated Sudanese
women reported that their urination was “normal.” When Lightfoot-Klein asked descriptive
questions such as “how long does it take you to urinate” that answer was “normal—about 15
minutes.”75 Such miscommunications prevent practitioners and advocates from gaining relevant
information for the communities in which they work. For health education to catalyze change,
the arguments and assertions must resonate with local populations. Additionally, social realities
are slow to change regardless of information about health complications. Concern for the future
welfare of the girl and her family (in terms of economic status and social reputation) remains
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
72 Freddie Bray, Peter McCarron, and D Maxwell Parkin, “The Changing Global Patterns of Female Breast Cancer
Incidence and Mortality,” Breast Cancer Res 6 (August 26, 2004): 230.
73 Ngowa et al., “Breast Cancer Profile in a Group of Patients Followed up at the Radiation Therapy Unit of the
Yaounde General Hospital, Cameroon,” 4.
74 Hanny Lightfoot-Klein, “The Sexual Experience and Marital Adjustment of Genitally Circumcised and
Infibulated Females in the Sudan,” The Journal of Sex Research 26, no. 3 (August 1989): 390391. In my own
interviews, I did ask qualitative questions to attempt to elicit more detailed responses. However, when I asked about
residual pain, breast-feeding, and lumps and bumps, I did not receive any enlightening responses.
75 Gerry Mackie, “Female Genital Cutting: The Beginning of the End,” in Female “Circumcision” in Africa, ed.
Bettina Shell-Duncan and Yiva Herniund (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000), 1009.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
18"
paramount, and no health risk or physical discomfort is sufficient to change that priority. These
same issues are of concern to females who practice breast flattening: for females who experience
the practice, they know no alternative, many females who give public testimonies describe
extreme variations of the practice, and finally, females employ breast flattening not to mutilate or
harm their daughters, but with their best interests at heart. For these reasons, a high quality
medical study would assist campaigns against breast flattening.
IV. CONTEXT: MOTIVATIONS DERRIVING FROM EVOLVING & EXISTING
SOCIAL CONDITIONS
Breast flattening in its current form may have proliferated as a response to a growing
social need to discourage pre-marital sexual activity in an environment where females,
particularly girls and young women, have limited agency.76. Changing social conditions,
including urbanization and social development, are increasingly facilitating unprecedented
female presence and participation in the public arena, e.g. school and professional environments.
Further, the time period when girls are no longer seen as children and are not yet mothers
continues to increase, as the onset of puberty is increasingly earlier and age of marriage is
increasingly later. Access to the public arena and later ages of marriage offer new strategies (i.e.
financial in addition to social) for a girl to pursue a better future. However, these new
opportunities may also increase the chances of sexual exploitation or abuse for adolescent girls
outside marriage, since children have increasing independence and freedom from parental
oversight without a corresponding increase in other protection or security.77 Whether related to
evolving social conditions or not, concerns of promiscuity, abduction, and rape are not
unfounded: 64% of Cameroonian girls have their first sexual experience between the ages of 12
and 16, and absent of birth control, many girls face early pregnancy, with 10% having their first
pregnancy before the age of 16, and 62% having their first pregnancy before the age of 19.78
This environment poses unique challenges for girls due to their relative marginalization, as seen
in norms surrounding marriage and sex.
A. Changing Marriage Practices
Traditional marriage practices in particular illustrate how young women lack control over
when they will get married, thereby gaining the responsibilities of a wife and mother, and losing
the opportunity to acquire skills and knowledge that might foster independence later in life.
Almost all of Cameroon’s many ethnic groups are patrilineal.79 While number of children and
spouse’s socio-economic identity determine status for both males and females, females have less
control over the start, duration, and end of matrimonial unions.80 Numerous traditions and
practices surrounding marriage reinforce this dynamic: traditionally, females are married in
childhood to much older men, polygyny is common, grounds for divorce are asymmetrical, and
the practice of bridewealth further prevents a dissatisfied wife from leaving her husband. These
norms made females dependent on males and existing hierarchies, but also protected them as
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
76 Author’s interview with Ndonko and Ngo’o, (June 2011).
77 Author’s interview with Ndonko and Ngo’o, (June 2011). Nguidjoï, “Analyse du Phenomene de ‘Repassage des
Seins’ des Jeunes FIlles en Milieu Urbain: Cas de la Ville de Yaoundé.”
78 GTZ, GTZ-Renata Short on Early/Unwanted Pregnancy, 2003.
79 Pamela Feldman-Savelsberg, “Culture of Cameroon,” Reference, Countries and Their Cultures, n.d.,
http://www.everyculture.com/Bo-Co/Cameroon.html.
80 Emmanuel Nebasina Ngwa, “The Bafut Chiefdom: A Panoramic Geographical Study” (Geography Department,
University of Yaoundé, 1982), 18.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
19"
members of their father’s family or their husband’s family. In the past century, these norms have
begun to shift, placing opportunities for increased independence within reach for many females.
However, because gender expectations of female submission, purity, and sexuality endure,
females are vulnerable to new threats of social exclusion and isolation.
Historically, Cameroonian girls were married as soon as they reached menarche, or even
promised for marriage in infancy, making pre-marital pregnancy less common.81
Findthedata.org, a public database that obtains and amalgamates information from public domain
databases, reports the trend towards later ages of marriage: In 1976, 44.53% of women between
15 and 19 years-of-age were married, and that rate has decreased nearly 10% each decade to a
rate of 19.4% in 2004. The average age of marriage for men has also increased, although from
mid-20s to mid-30s, thereby maintaining the age discrepancy between husbands and wives.82
Calvès (1999) explains that “[b]ecause young African women and men postpone first
marriage…but often do not wait for marriage to become sexually active…premarital pregnancies
and births are on the rise, especially in urban areas and among educated youths.”83 One woman
expressed her views on the appropriate husband/wife dynamic:
“Men should be the head of the relationship, not the tail. Some women now are
even getting married to younger men. You are cheating though if you take a
younger husband. He will find out that you are older and then his friends will
educate him on how to rule you, and he will treat you very poorly. An older man
knows how to respect his wife, and she knows how to respect and obey him.”84
A tradition of polygyny permeates Cameroon, where over 90% of men surveyed prefer
polygynous marriage, but only 30-35% are able to achieve it.85 Polygyny has strong traditional
roots, particularly in Bafut.86 The Government of Cameroon endorses polygyny, arguing that
formal unions protect women and their children by increasing transparency as well as women’s
rights to claim support, and thereby increasingly the likelihood of equal wealth distribution
among wives and mistresses.87 Some also justify polygyny as a way to mitigate the weight of a
wife’s marital duties. However, this presumes that women should have no agency or bargaining
power in marriage. Many women and young men, too, express a preference for monogamous
unions, explaining that polygyny can lead to conflicts in the home.88 Polygyny, and government
sanctioning of the practice as a social security measure for women, illustrates the government’s
weak stance on promoting and protecting women’s independence from men.
Bridewealth is ubiquitous in Cameroon, and is practiced such that the groom’s family
gives the bride’s family a specified quantity of food and money over a period of weeks, months,
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
81 Historically, men could choose girls at childbirth and then wait for her to be “ready.” Often girls were taken to
their new husband’s house when their own family deemed it “time” without any additional explanation. Source:
Author’s interviews, Bafut, Cameroon (August 2011).
82 “Cameroon Marriage Statistics,” Database, Findthedata.org, n.d., http://marriage-
statistics.findthedata.org/d/d/Cameroon.
83 Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès, “Marginalization of African Single Mothers in the Marriage Market: Evidence from
Cameroon,” Population Studies 53, no. 3 (November 1999): 291.
84 Author’s interview with 53-year-old woman, Bafut, Cameroon (August 2011).
85 Miriam Koktvedgaard Zeitzen, Polygamy: a Cross-cultural Analysis (Oxford: Berg, 2008), 3637.
86 Ngwa, “The Bafut Chiefdom: A Panoramic Geographical Study,” 33.
87 R.J. Sa’ah, “Cameroon Mass Polygamous Wedding,” BBC News (Yaoundé, Cameroun, January 12, 2007), sec.
News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6254935.stm.
88 Author’s interviews (June-August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
20"
or years, culminating in a final celebration when the bride is taken from her father’s house to her
new husband’s house. In customary law, a woman cannot leave her husband unless her
bridewealth is repaid to the husband’s family. Without assistance, it can be very difficult or
impossible for a woman to save that sum of money on her own, effectively locking her into her
marriage. Most groups mandate that bridewealth remain the same for a woman’s daughters as it
was for her, however, many describe a time when girls began receiving educations and their
families chose to increase bridewealth by the total cost of her school fees. Some scholars
interpret bridewealth as a man purchasing a bride (Raglan, 1929; Gray, 1960), while others
emphasize its role in solidifying a new connection between families (Radcliff-Brown, 1929).
Either way, in practice, it serves to weaken a woman’s bargaining power and limit her freedom
once wed.
Traditionally, if a girl did have pre-marital pregnancy, the implicated man was socially
obliged to marry her.89 In some communities, a marriage was only solidified when the female
gave birth to the first child.90 In the absence of customary law, however, men are rarely held
accountable for promiscuous behavior. Some propose that this “accountability gap” arose in
conjunction with urbanization. As local communities dissolve and cities swell with immigrants,
certain traditional social norms endure, e.g., men seek chaste and virginal wives, and others
deteriorate, e.g., a man’s obligation to marry a woman whom he has impregnated. The decline of
accountability for men may simply be a matter of feasibility: in a bustling city, it is difficult to
know decisively the identity of the man responsible for the pregnancy of a woman unless he
elects to come forward. From this review of the role of age of marriage, polygyny, bridewealth,
and pre-marital pregnancy, it is apparent that changing norms surrounding marriage pose new
risks for girls and women.
B. Control of Sexual and Reproductive Rights
Further limiting options for females in Cameroon is the lack of control over sexual and
reproductive rights. In Cameroon, conversation and education about sex is taboo, contraceptives
are socially unpopular, and abortion is illegal. These political and cultural realities increase the
risks associated with sexual activity, in terms of uninformed partners, increased risk of
contracting STIs, and a higher likelihood of pregnancy. Due to insufficient sex education at
home and in schools, poor access to and stigma against contraception, and no options for legal or
safe abortion, sex often results in pregnancy and childbirth.
Parents rarely discuss sex with their children, and if they do the details are often
inaccurate or vague. Interviewees related the sex education they received from their parents or
teachers:
“I got my first menses in 1986. I was very disturbed. I was told that I would get
pregnant if I went close to boys.”91
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
89 In section 297 of the Cameroon Penal Code, which addresses sentences for perpetrators of rape, “the law allows
that there be no offence considered where marriage is freely consented between the rapist and the victim where the
victim is over puberty at the time of commission of the offence.” In practice, this translates such that if the man
offers to marry the woman, her case is effectively undermined. Source: Patience Siri Akenji, “Constraints in Seeking
Justice for Rape Victims in Cameroon: A Situation Analysis at the Ministry of Justice and the Bamenda High Court”
(GTZ, August 2009), 9.
90 Christraud M. Geary, “On Legal Change in Cameroon; Women, Marriage, and Bridewalth” (African Studies
Center: Working Papers, Boston University, 1986).
91 Author’s interview with a 38-year-old teacher in Bafut (August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
21"
“…[W]e had a subject in school called “mother’s craft” that we took in our last
level, we were 10 or 11. I remember they were talking about signs of pregnancy.
They said your breasts get bigger and your period stops. Immediately when you
start menstruation, you must stop having any contact with men. But we
understood this to mean that when you are menstruating, you should not have
sexual relations.”92
Similarly, I spoke with two 18-year old girls in Bafut, who explained that their mothers told them
that they “should not be talking to boys when menstruating.” I asked them if that meant that
other times of the month are okay to be near boys, and they both said, “yes.”
In Cameroon, chastity and virginity are highly valued, and both sex and puberty are taboo
topics of conversation. These values may reinforce the social norms that foster the practice of
breast flattening, since women strive to protect their daughters from becoming “ruined” or
“spoiled” but feel unable to provide girls with information that might help them make reasoned
decisions about sex. One Cameroonian woman, a lawyer working in Bamenda, said:
“I was angry at my own mother for never talking to me about sex. But as a
Christian mother, I feel that I cannot [talk to my own daughters about sex]. The
Catholic Church is against birth control. We believe in complete abstinence. If I
tell [my daughter] about her menstrual cycle, it’s like saying that it is okay to
have sex. So instead, I just let her be God fearing and watch her very well.”93
Many girls and women expressed that they could never speak with their parents about sex. Omer
Songwe, who works at a youth outreach program, explained that when parents “educate” their
children, they simply tell them to “come home early” and “don’t get close to boys.”94 Sex
education in schools is improving, but without a trustworthy source of correct information,
children are apt to internalize incorrect details.
Many parents delegate sex education to the public school system. Sex education in
public schools has improved significantly over the past decade, but quality is still inconsistent.
Although the topics of “HIV/AIDS, “STIs” and “sex education” are included in the Cameroon’s
National Syllabus for Primary Schools,95 there are no details on what material must be taught.
While some teachers take lessons seriously, others are as shy as children’s parents to discuss sex
education.96 Many women learn about sex from personal experience. One woman I spoke with
told me about her first sexual experience:
“A few months [after the encounter], I felt totally different—I didn't even want to
see my lotion sometimes, or food would make me nauseous. I hadn't menstruated
in three months. So my friend asked me to take a pregnancy test, and I said okay.
When I went, the woman told me I was pregnant, and I said, ‘But I haven't done
anything that could make me pregnant.’”97
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
92 Author’s interview with the Executive Secretary of RENATA (June 2011).
93 Author’s interview with a 43-year-old woman lawyer in Bamenda (August 2011).
94 Author’s interview, Omer Songwe, Youth Outreach Manager, Bamenda (August 2011).
95 Ministry of Education, “Cameroon’s National Syllabus for English Speaking Primary Schools” (Cameroon,
2000).
96 Author’s interview with Omer Songwe, Youth Outreach Manager, Bamenda (August 2011).
97 Interview with an “Auntie” from RENATA in the suburbs of Bamenda (August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
22"
Many of the women I spoke with related similar experiences, demonstrating that sex
education is either insufficient or provided too late to benefit many Cameroonians.
In Cameroon, contraceptives, particularly condoms, are socially unpopular, resulting in
unprotected sex and increased incidence of pregnancy. Although 90% of women know about
contraceptives, only 26% of married women use a form of birth control and only 13% use
modern methods.98 Less than 50% of people between 15 and 24 use condoms with non-regular
sexual partners.99 Condom use may be uncommon because imbalanced power dynamics
between males and females cause Cameroonian females to acquiesce to male’s requests. Eva
Fernandez Ortiz, who conducted research on breast flattening in Yaoundé, found that youth view
contraceptives as an indication that the partners do not trust each other, and see them as
unnecessary with a long-term partner.100 Ortiz refers to a quotation from a South African
teenage girl about condom use: “If a boy wants to use a condom a girl will say this is because he
disrespects her – because he wants to use ‘a plastic.’”101 Although no one I spoke to indicated
that barriers represented a lack of trust, some did express the view that they prefer using natural
planning, and that only “sexually hot” women who cannot control their sexual desire or that of
their partner, need contraceptives.102
Abortion is illegal and punishable with up to five years in prison and a fine of
approximately US$4,200 for the abortionist and one year in prison for the female herself.103
Sylvie Schuster reports that abortions are illegal in Cameroon unless the female’s life is at risk or
in the case of rape. The onus is on the girl or woman to prove her right to an abortion. The law
reads:
“The doctor shall obtain the opinion of two experts each chosen respectively from
legal experts and members of the National Council of Medical Practitioners. The
latter shall testify in writing that the life of the mother can only be safeguarded by
means of the intervention. The protocol of consultation shall be made in 3 copies
one of which shall be handed to the patient and the other two to the consultant
physician and legal expert. Besides, a protocol of the decision taken shall be sent
by registered mail to the chairperson of the National Council of Medical
Practitioners.”104
Although abortion is almost never prosecuted, given that many rural health clinics are “off the
grid” without access to legal practitioners or members of the National Council of Medical
Practitioners, let alone faxes, Internet, photocopy machines, or computers, this law effectively
precludes all females, even those with legal justifications, from seeking medicalized abortions.105
Alternative options are often dangerous for the health of the mother. Ortiz interviewed a
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
98 Ortiz, “Why Breast Ironing? Reasons behind this Cameroonian female mutilation,” 13. citing DHS survey 2004.
99 Ibid., 14. citing Abbasi, S. 2009. “Preventing HIV with young people: the key to tackling the epidemic.” UNICEF
[Online].
100 Ibid., 26.
101 Ibid., 14. citing Campbell, C. 2003. “Letting them die: why HIV/AIDS intervention programmes fail.” Oxford:
International African Institute.
102 Author’s interview with a 26-year-old unwed mother, Bafut, Cameroon (August 2011).
103 Sylvie Schuster, “Women’s Experiences of the Abortion Law in Cameroon: ‘What Really Matters’,
Reproductive Health Matters 18, no. 35 (2010): 137.
104 Ibid., 137138.
105 Ibid., 137.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
23"
gynecologist who reported that botched procedures result in intestinal perforations and life-
threatening hemorrhaging.106 The risk of internal hemorrhaging is well known. Other women
reported, “If you get an abortion, you might be just sitting there next to me, and then the next
moment you will start bleeding.”107 Additionally, religious beliefs cause the procedure to be
viewed as murder of the fetus, catalyzing a strong cultural incentive not to abort. These social
norms create an environment in which girls and women have little agency or control over when
or under what circumstances they will become a mother.
C. Unequal Power Relations between Girls and Men
Both age and gender dynamics place girls at a disadvantage when interacting with or
negotiating with men. In practice, this means that often girls acquiesce to men’s persistent and
aggressive propositions. Breasts signal physical and sexual maturity, and therefore, a girl who is
well developed is more likely to attract sexual attention from men. Many Cameroonian men
believe that when a girl is physically mature, she is “ripe” for sex. Additionally, because many
people believe that breasts grow to reflect a girl’s psychological interests, some feel that a large
chested girl is “asking for it,” just as some in the western world argue that a girl wearing a short
skirt is seeking sexual attention.108 In this context, men feel entitled to aggressively pursue any
physically mature woman, regardless of her age or personal wishes, and it is her responsibility to
refuse his amorous approaches. One journalist who I interviewed explained:
“…for mothers there is the perception that we should delay the development of
girls as much as possible, believing that physical development shows maturity.
Men look at girls and talk amongst themselves and say, “she’s ripe for sex.” They
are not looking for marriage prospects. Full-grown men and young boys—they
are all the same. Men are aggressive. In pidgin, they say “she got get done big,”
meaning, she’s matured and ready for sex. I can go after her now. Women, on the
other hand, know that their daughters are just kids.”109
There is an implicit understanding that girls at young ages often have relations with older boys
and men as the men’s consistent advances wear down their resistance. Financial and emotional
perks are additional incentives to accept the advances of a boyfriend.110 However, early
pregnancy is proof of errant behavior, demonstrating that a girl has not been brought up correctly
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
106 Ortiz, “Why Breast Ironing? Reasons behind this Cameroonian female mutilation,” 26.
107 Author’s interview with 26-year old female youth leader in Bafut, Cameroon (August 2011).
108 I spoke with three men, two of whom work as traditional healers in the Bafut community. They explained that “a
girl who has large breasts is thought of as free, or bad, that is, she lets men touch her breasts and she is promiscuous.
In this case, if she is raped, no one has sympathy for her because she has gained this reputation as a free girl because
of her developed body.” Source: Author’s interviews with traditional healers (August 2011).
109 Author’s interview with Randy Joe Sa’ah, free-lance journalist for BBC in Yaoundé, Cameroon (August 2011).
110 I interviewed an 18-year-old girl in Bafut who explained to me that her mother told her that 18 was an okay time
to have a boyfriend, but she ought to chose one. She has a boyfriend now in Yaoundé, and she said that “He
provides me some small money for things that I need, or things for myself.” Another woman, a 38-year-old teacher
in lower Bafut told me, “When I was small I used to laugh when I saw girls and boys standing next to each other.
But then I got to that age and I liked the attention. The thing is, you can have friends, but you cannot have sex before
marriage.” Author’s interview (August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
24"
and is not receiving sufficient oversight.111 If one daughter gains this reputation, it can destroy
her entire family’s reputation, as discussed below.
Rape is also a significant concern for girls in Cameroon. A 2009 report from GIZ found
that reported rates of rape have increased steadily since 1970, with the average age of rape
victims at 15-years.112 Another study found that 30% of males and 37% of females reported that
their first sexual experience was not voluntary.113 However, sexual abuse and rape are rarely
prosecuted in Cameroon, and only one in 20 accused male rapists is convicted, demonstrating
that cultural perception places the onus of sex and any subsequent emotional and physical costs
on females.114 Both a parent’s inability to raise pious daughter and a daughter’s delinquent
behavior disgraces a family. One 45-year-old woman explained that for females, promiscuity
engenders a loss of respect.
“As for fears, we fear that if a girl doesn’t get married and becomes pregnant in
her father’s home, she will lose respect. If you get married first, you have respect.
That’s a ‘good girl.’ But in the case of poverty, girls have to go looking for a boy
to give her something. It does not mean she is so bad.”115
The high likelihood of premarital sex and resulting pregnancy and childbirth is a cause of
great concern for parents, as it limits future opportunities for their daughters. This concern has
intensified as Cameroonian society has modernized in certain respects, improving access to
education for girls and raising the age of marriage. Ndonko posited that breast flattening arose
as a phenomenon to address a new social norm as many girls are no longer married as
teenagers.116 At the same time, they are expected to go to school, work on the farm, go to the
market, or perform other daily activities outside the watchful gaze of parents or guardians, which
increases their vulnerability to the advances of older boys and men. Additionally, the pressures
for older girls and women to become independent continue to mount as western values permeate
society. Girls and women are increasingly expected to become educated, secure a job, and be
able to support themselves without the assistance of a man. When asked what one thing is most
important for Cameroonian girls, a number of women aged 25 to 38, emphasized independence
from men:
“If I could give one thing to Cameroonian girls, it would be independence from
parents and boyfriends, and from peer pressure. I would let all Cameroonian girls
know who they are.”117
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
111 I asked many of my interviewees what their parents want the community to identify or know about them, or for
parents, what they wanted the community to identify about their children. Many mentioned piety, good behavior,
and “staying in the house” as priorities. Therefore a “correctly raised” child would not become pregnant out of
wedlock, and doing so demonstrates a parent’s inability to raise a child well.
112 Ndonko and Taku, “Aunties” for Sexual Health and Non-violence: How Unwed Young Mothers Can Become
Advocates, Teachers and Counsellors in Cameroon, 25.
113 Mburano Rwenge, “Sexual Risk Behaviors Among Young People in Bamenda, Cameroon,” International Family
Planning Perspectives 26, no. 3 (September 2000): 118.
114 Ndonko and Taku, “Aunties” for Sexual Health and Non-violence: How Unwed Young Mothers Can Become
Advocates, Teachers and Counsellors in Cameroon, 25.
115 Although this was the case in the interviews I conducted, I have also heard that if a woman is older and
unmarried and without a child, men will fear that she is infertile, and thus she will be a less desirable marriage
prospect. Author’s interviews, Yaoundé and Washington, D.C. (June 2011).
116 Author’s interview with Dr. Flavien Ndonko, Yaoundé (June 2011).
117 Author’s interview with 25-year-old woman legal assistant, Bamenda (August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
25"
“If I could give girls anything, I would give them self-confidence and the ability to
know that it is not a man that makes you. You have to make it by yourself.”118
“If I could give one thing to all girl children, I would give them education,
because education will enable them to make decisions for themselves in the
future.”119
Others emphasized the importance of education: of 29 interviewees who were asked what
they would give to all girls or children in Cameroon, if they could give anything, 17 responded,
“education.” The remaining responses focused on career opportunities or direct transfers of
money, highlighting the underlying intention: to give girls and women agency and empower
them to change their own lives for the better. This hope is becoming a reality: school attendance
has increased for girls nationwide by an estimated 20% between 1990 and 2005 and in some
regions, girls are now attending school in near equal numbers as boys.120 However, this
emphasis on women’s empowerment and self-sufficiency has not been matched with increased
dialogue about sexual or reproductive health, education about human biology and puberty, or
respect for girls and women’s rights and agency.
If a girl or woman has had a child out of wedlock, her future options for both education
and marriage become limited. Early pregnancy and childbirth can cause girls to drop out of
school, both because of the stigma of pregnancy out of wedlock, and preparation for childbirth
and motherhood. Although some girls manage to return to school after their child is born, many
never do.121 Children require care and are also a financial investment that can usurp limited
finances previously spent on school fees and books. One official at the Ministry of Basic
Education in Bamessing, Cameroon, stated that of female school dropouts, 65% can be attributed
to early pregnancy.122 Additionally, early pregnancy often precludes future marriage. Although
many men I talked with empathized with the plight of female who give birth out of wedlock,
when asked if they themselves would marry a female who already had a child, male interviewees
responded resoundingly in the negative.
“[I do not want] someone who has had many men, or is a “local star.” You carry
disgrace in your head if you marry a woman who has been with many men, like
you're getting married to a bitch. You want to be sure you know who she really is.
I would never consider marrying a girl who had a child by a different man.”123
The damage to one girl’s reputation can hurt the prospects of other girls in the family. One man
explained that when looking for a bride, it is essential to first “ask around about the wife, and
people will say what they have heard about the girl and her family.”124 Sometimes, men adhere
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
118 Author’s interview with 27-year-old woman lawyer, Bamenda (August 2011).
119 Author’s interview with 38-year-old woman teacher, Bafut (August 2011).
120 School enrollment figures show roughly the same number of girls as boys enrolled in school across the
Northwest region of Cameroon. Source: Author’s interview with Delegate at the Ministry of Primary Education,
Ndop (July 2011), and “Education Statistics: Cameroon” (UNICEF, Division of Policy and Practice, Statistics and
Monitoring Section, May 2008), 1, www.childinfo.org/files/WCAR_Cameroon.pdf.
121 Ortiz, “Why Breast Ironing? Reasons behind this Cameroonian female mutilation.
122 Author’s interview with Delegate at the Ministry of Basic Education, Ndop (July 2011).
123 Author’s interview with a 21-year-old man, Ndop (August 2011).
124 Author’s interview with a 51-year-old male traditional healer, Bafut (August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
26"
to a traditional value to support any illegitimate children, occasionally even marrying the woman
years later, perhaps after fathering a few more children out of wedlock.125
This leaves mothers with few choices. Their first priority is to protect the virginity of
their daughters both to ensure a good marriage and to allow girls to pursue education. Yet, they
often cannot tell girls about sex because of cultural and religious taboos, they cannot prevent
girls from meeting boys or hold boys accountable for the results of sexual activity, and they
cannot provide girls with options for birth control or abortion. In communities that traditionally
practice FGC, a girl’s future success depends on a good marriage, the likelihood of which is
dramatically improved by signaling chastity via the socially accepted signal of FGC. In
communities that practice breast flattening, a girl’s future success depends on both a good
marriage and achieving a certain level of education, the likelihood of which is dramatically
improved by delaying sexual activity via a signal of breast flattening. Therefore, mothers seeking
to protect the interests of their daughters continue flattening breasts, hoping to prevent boys and
men from pursuing the girl, and incentivize girls to reject attention from boys and men. Although
women know they are causing physical pain to their daughters, breast flattening seems like the
best viable option. One woman told me:
“When my [great] aunt was doing this to her daughters, they would always cry
because it was so painful. She had to massage very hard. My aunt would cry too
while she did it because she hated to see her daughters in such pain.”126
In this analysis, breast flattening addresses an indirect cause of early pregnancy and childbearing,
but it is one of the few factors that women have control over in the current situation. Therefore,
breast flattening can be understood as a way for mothers and caretakers to attempt to enhance
and to promote the girl child’s future success and that of her family, as well as options for
education and a better marriage. While the practice is harmful, the mothers’ and caretakers’
intentions are to protect their girls.
D. Understandings of Human Developmental Stages and Puberty
While the average age of marriage has increased, the age of maturation has decreased.
Cameroonian girls now begin puberty on average two years earlier than in 1925. Doctors credit
this change to improved nutrition and health.127 In urban areas onset of puberty is on average one
year earlier than in rural areas, again credited to improved health conditions and nutrition.128
Further, many girls and women feel ashamed or embarrassed at the prospect of going through
puberty, and there is little preparation for the changes a girl should expect. The GIZ study found
that approximately 33% of respondents felt angry, ashamed, and embarrassed about breast
development. This sentiment was reflected in my interviews, where women reported trying to
conceal their developing breasts by hunching their shoulders forward or wearing baggy clothes
and extra layers. Mothers, noticing these changes, may choose to flatten their daughter’s breasts
out of concern for the negative social, physical, or mental consequences that may ensue from
abnormally early breast development.
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
125 Two women out of five who had children before marriage reported that they expect to marry or have married the
father of the children. Author’s interviews (June, July and August 2011).
126 Author’s interview, teacher in Bafut, Cameroon (August 2011).
127 Ndonko and Ngo’o, “Etude sur le modelage des seins au Cameroun.”
128 Pasquet et al., “Age at Menarche and Urbanization in Cameroon: Current Status and Secular Trends,” 89.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
27"
Many interviewees also expressed that girls are teased when they start to develop breasts,
especially if they develop earlier than their peers. One teacher related that a girl student came to
her crying because a boy had said he would marry her because she was grown. The same
woman said that she was driven to practice breast flattening on herself when she was growing
up, after changing in front of a friend who noticed her “little guavas.”129 Two other women
explained:
“In my primary school, I used to see big girls with breasts [laughter]. I thought,
how can they play? They must be heavy. When I started having breasts, it was
disgusting, I just wanted them to go away. My mother never proposed breast
ironing, but if she had, I would have readily accepted.”130
“Sometimes the girls do breast ironing. They do it when they realize that the girls
of their age are still flat chested. Some will do breast ironing when their friends
are making a mockery of them.”131
Another woman described her fear that boys would poke and pinch her breasts when they
developed.
“My mother explained it by saying that it was the best thing for me, and she did it
to keep men from desiring me, to keep them from grabbing my breasts [at this
point, she made rapid and fierce gestures, grabbing and pinching], or to keep
girls from teasing her. I did have general fears that if I had large or developing
breasts, the things my mother warned against would happen to me. I especially
feared being teased by girls.”132
In such cases, breast flattening is practiced not just for fear that boys will start pursuing the girls
but also to prevent girls from standing out from their peer group and suffering from bullying and
teasing.
V. BARRIERS TO CHANGE
The previous section highlights how evolving social conditions that create new
vulnerabilities for girls and women that require new forms of protection, outside parental
oversight and marriage. Additional barriers to changing the practice of breast flattening include
“belief traps,” and limited alternative options.
A. Existence of “Belief Traps” and Traditional Practices
A number of belief traps, i.e. “belief[s] that cannot be revised because the believed costs
of testing the belief are too high,”133 have developed to support the practice of breast flattening.
For example, women cite the belief that when a girl grows breasts, she will stop growing
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
129 Author’s interview with a 38-year-old teacher in Bafut (August 2011).
130 Author’s interview with a 29-year-old woman in Yaoundé (June 2011).
131 Author’s interview with Nathalia Ngende, Plan employee (June 2011).
132 Author’s interview with 25-year-old woman in Yaoundé (June 2011).
133 Gerry Mackie, “Ending Footbinding and Infibulation: A Convention Account,” American Sociological Review
61, no. 6 (December 1996): 1009.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
28"
taller,134 or that if breasts are not controlled they will grow in haphazardly to disproportionately
large sizes.135 Others believe that if the breasts are sensitive or “paining” when they “come out,”
it means that the development has started too early. Thus, the flattening is performed as a
treatment, with the belief that when they develop later it will be the right time and it will not
hurt. Surprisingly common, too, is the belief that a girl’s body develops in accordance with
external factors. Of 52 interviewees, six expressed the belief that a girl’s breasts grow if a man
touches them, while four others believed that a girl’s breasts will grow if she is interested in sex,
watches pornography, or goes to nightclubs.136 These beliefs were held even by some of the
most highly educated individuals with whom I spoke, including employees of development
NGOs, teachers, a representative from the Ministry of Social Affairs, and a prominent journalist,
each quoted below:
“People who have breasts are people who have allowed boys to touch them.
When you see someone with breasts, it means that men are already touching
them. Women flatten breasts to prove to people that they aren’t letting men touch
them. Some mothers say to their daughters, ‘don’t let any men touch you because
it will make your breasts grow.’”137
“If a girl is interested in sex and thinks about it a lot, she will develop faster. I
saw two girls of 12 years, one of whom was very developed physically and the
other was not. The one who was developed could speak very frankly about sex,
showing that she was knowledgeable from some experience, while the other girl
was very naive and shy.”138
“The body responds to psychological ideas. If a girl looks for a "friend," her
breasts will grow faster. If she is interested in boys or watches pornography, her
body will develop faster.”139
“Until about a year ago, I believed that when a girl is interested in sex, watches
porn, or lets boys touch their breasts, her breasts will grow larger. I think my
mother must believe this. My ideas changed when I saw my own friends—I knew
they were virgins, but they had large breasts. Also when my own breasts got
bigger, and it was not because a man was touching them.”140
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
134 Author’s interviews with Executive Secretary of RENATA in Yaoundé (June 2011); with 22-year-old employee
of RENATA in Bamenda (August 2011); with Dr. Sinou Tchana in Yaoundé (August 2011) and Nguidjoï, “Analyse
du Phenomene de ‘Repassage des Seins’ des Jeunes FIlles en Milieu Urbain: Cas de la Ville de Yaoundé.”
135 One woman who was attending a maternal health clinic with her daughter told me that she had flattened the
breasts of her eldest daughter and the girl’s breasts never grew back, so she can’t recommend it. Instead, “For others
who have the problem of children who have too large of breasts, I would recommend that they get the children
breast wear. The breasts will continue growing and when they are just the right size, then start wearing something
that is more fitting, because otherwise the breasts will just keep growing out into the space.” Her story was
accompanied with gesticulations indicating the outward growth of unsupported breasts. Author’s interview, Bafut,
(August 2011).
136 Author’s interviews (June, July and August 2011).
137 Author’s interview with a Plan Cameroon employee in Yaoundé (June 2011).
138 Author’s interview with a teacher in Bafut (August 2011).
139 Author’s interview with a delegate for the Ministry of Social Affairs (August 2011).
140 Author’s interview with a prominent journalist in Bamenda (August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
29"
A few others also believed that delaying the growth of breasts could delay the onset of puberty,
including menstruation and psychological changes such as mood swings and an increasing desire
for independence.141 These misconceptions indicate that there is a place for framing harmful
indigenous practices as health problems, although the actual problem has been incorrectly
identified. The focus should be broad based education on human developmental biology, in
terms of how, when, and why puberty occurs, physical development and maternal health, rather
than a narrow lesson on the long-term negative health outcomes.142
B. Limited Access to Alternative Options
Many mothers worldwide see in their daughters the opportunity to do better, and strive to
guide girls through the hazardous obstacle course of childhood and adolescence. In Cameroon,
many mothers may be particularly sensitive to the risks that their daughters face in marriage, as
most women experience domestic violence, many live in polygynous unions, and feel the strain
of poverty. Cameroonian women are cognizant of the value of virginity and chastity in the long-
term for family welfare, and for her daughter’s welfare. For the family, a daughter’s pre-marital
sexual exploits can result in childbirth, which imposes a social cost of humiliation and shame, as
well as an additional financial cost of raising a grandchild. For the daughter, motherhood has all
the limiting ramifications previously discussed, e.g., forcing a girl to leave school and limiting
her ability to find work. Further, pre-marital affairs rarely result in marriage, and usually limit or
preclude future options for marriage. A mother can see the benefits of delayed sexual activity
for both her family and her daughter, and is thus incentivized to share these insights with her
daughters, encouraging them to wait so as to maximize the payoff for her family and her
individual children.
Girls, on the other hand, are eager to grow up. Particularly in resource poor
environments, children have difficult childhoods. In Cameroon, corporal punishment is nearly
ubiquitous and the concept of rights for children is recent. Children spend their time doing
chores in the house, working on the farm, and going to school. Interviewees expressed to me
that as children they faced punishments most frequently when they neglected household duties in
favor of playing. The temptation of emotional and financial support from older men is
persuasive and it is difficult to convince children that they should delay some aspects of grown-
up behavior (sexual activities) while striving to achieve others (education and delayed
gratification). Breast flattening therefore, serves as a signal from the mother to her daughter that
the girl is not yet mature or independent enough to engage in sexual relations with men. One
woman explained that for her, this was in fact the impact of experiencing breast flattening:
“When [breast flattening] happened to me, it was making me feel less feminine,
and like I shouldn't be getting into this [sex and boys] now.”143
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
141 Author’s interview with Ndonko and Ngo’o in Yaoundé (June 2011).
142 This is also applicable to other practices in Cameroon, such as post-partum massage or “belly-ironing” whereby
women use heated objects to massage and press the stomachs of women immediately after they have given birth so
as to flatten the stomach. Other similar practices include a light massage of infant’s heads during the first few weeks
of life to correct any irregularities in shape, leg massage starting at the age of six months to help children walk and
ensure that they will grow tall, or foot massage to correct arched feet. Source: Ngo’o, “Étude Anthropologique du
‘Modelage des Seins’ Chez les Bangangte,” 2530.
143 Author’s interview with 27-year-old lawyer, Bamenda (August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
30"
As discussed, mothers have an incentive to promote the image of a daughter’s devotion to
chastity to prevent men from aggressively targeting the child for sex. Therefore, many women
explained to me that the prevalence of breast flattening will decrease as it becomes more
acceptable and common for mothers to teach their children about sex. On the other hand, many
women with whom I spoke commented that girls are increasingly promiscuous, hardheaded, and
less respectful of authority. One woman who flattened the breasts of her daughter and niece
explained:
“Times have changed. Now girls go around showing their skin off and dressing
scandalously. Girls don't show as much respect to their parents. I want people to
see that my children are well behaved and respectful. It is very difficult to control
children, so you have to control them in the house. Breast flattening can help
control them in the house.”144
This implies that there is an increasing need for a way to communicate the benefit of chastity
before marriage in Cameroonian society.
VII. APPROACHES TO END THE PRACTICE
A. Advocacy Work by NGOs
Two NGOs in Cameroon, GIZ and RENATA, are currently advocating against breast
flattening. GIZ supported a national study in 2005 that uncovered the basic facts that are now
known about breast flattening, including prevalence rate by region, some common methods, the
effected age groups, and proposed side effects. RENATA has subsequently included the issue of
breast flattening in its educative sensitization workshops, which run for one week in both urban
and rural centers across Cameroon and target teen-mothers. RENATA has held over 200
trainings, directly reaching over 1,000 girls. From preliminary research, it appears that the
practice of breast flattening is decreasing thanks to sensitization campaigns, improved sex
education in schools, and improved parent/child communication on puberty, sex, and
male/female relations. Further, as girls learn more about their rights, they are increasingly likely
to question the authority of anyone who attempts flatten their breasts.
RENATA’s campaigns use the slogan “Do not iron breasts. They are a gift of God.” This
seems to have resonated with Cameroonians who I spoke with. Quotes from a 1) 30-year-old
married woman; 2) an 18-year-old unmarried girl; and 3) a 25-year-old unmarried boy illustrate
these convictions:
1) “Breast development is natural. It is God's will.”145
2) “When people are God fearing, they behave well, and enjoy their marriage. It
is hard to cheat because it is against God's will to commit adultery… I would not
advise someone to do breast flattening. God has not made a mistake. Breasts are
gifts of God.”146
3) “Mothers do it because they are afraid that boys will start to chase girls. But
this cannot work because girls that are still flat [chested] go out and are bad.
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
144 Author’s interview with 52-year-old woman, Ndop (August 2011).
145 Author’s interview with a 30-year-old married woman in Bafut (August 2011).
146 Author’s interview with an 18-year-old unmarried woman in Bafut (August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
31"
You are what God makes you—that is your nature, and the size of a girl’s breasts
doesn’t matter.”147
This message of the RENATA campaign seems to resonate with Cameroonians, as multiple
interviewees mentioned the phrase in conversation.
B. Existing and Proposed Legal Instruments
Cameroon has ratified a number of international instruments to protect human rights, as
well as the rights of women and children, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
(1948), the World Health Organization’s (“WHO”) 1986 Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion,
the 1988 United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the International Covenants on Civil
and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the African Charter on
Human and Peoples’ Rights. Additionally, a variety of other global and regional conventions
form a legal structure that specifically protect the rights of women and children. The 1959 United
Nations Convention on Rights of the Child (“CRC”) states that governments should take
measures to abolish “traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children,” while the 1992
United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
(“CEDAW”) “calls for an end both to gender discrimination in general and to social and cultural
customs based on the idea of the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes.”148 Cameroon
has failed to pass national-level legislation that harmonizes local law and practices with
international standards.
In terms of breast flattening, some groups have petitioned Cameroonian parliamentarians
to implement “anti-discrimination legislation that proposes a 10-year prison sentence for those
caught practicing [breast flattening].”149 However, the practice has not yet been criminalized.
Many government and non-governmental reports, including those by the U.S. Department of
State and the United Nations General Assembly and the United Nations Economic Commission
for Africa list breast flattening as a violation of women’s and children’s rights.150 A 2007 BBC
article by Randy Joe Sa’ah states that victims of breast flattening can seek legal protection, and
that with evidence of physical damage confirmed by a medical practitioner, a perpetrator of
breast flattening can be jailed for up to three years.151 However, through my research and
interviews, I have not found a single instance of legal intervention, detention, or arrest. The
Penal Code, the only Cameroonian legal document that prescribes substantive punishments,
gives various sentences for assault, none of which correspond to the three year sentence, but
which range from a maximum of ten years for assault causing grievous harm to a minimum of
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
147 Author’s interview with a 25-year-old male youth group leader in Bafut (August 2011).
148 Susan Hopkins, “A Discussion of the Legal Aspects of Female Genital Mutilation,” Journal of Advanced Nursing
30, no. 4 (1999): 928..
149 Rich, “Breast Ironing, a Painful Practice for Cameroon’s Girls.”
150 Mukama and Domkam, Breast Ironing in Cameroon: An Overview for Fair Fund, 5.; U.S. Department of State,
2010 Human Rights Report: Cameroon, 33.; United Nations, Harmful Traditional Practices Against Women and
Legislation (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, May 25, 2009), 3.; Yakin
Ertürk, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences (United
Nations General Assembly, January 17, 2007), 14.
151 R.J. Sa’ah, “Cameroon Girls Battle ‘Breast Ironing’,” BBC News (Yaoundé, Cameroun, 2007),
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/5107360.stm.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
32"
six days for assault causing slight harm.152 Further, in a follow up interview with Sa’ah, he was
unable to direct me to the legislation underpinning the three-year sentence and expressed
personal doubt that legal action would be taken in this context.
The new recognition of rights for women and children is changing family dynamics as
well. Traditional views require children to be obedient, and not to voice their feelings or
opinions. Adults often think of children as incapable of reason, and thus parents and teachers use
corporal punishment to correct behavior.153 This power dynamic between mothers and daughters
makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a girl to refuse her mother’s wishes or
question the purpose of her mother’s decisions. With concepts of youth empowerment, the status
quo is beginning to change. Many women who I interviewed explained that breast flattening is
less common now because if a mother tells her daughter to come into the kitchen and heat a
stone, the girl will ask why. When the girl learns of the impending breast flattening, she will
refuse, and increasingly, the mother listens.154 This would have been unheard of even one
generation ago.
VIII. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Breast flattening is a painful practice considered the norm for many women who
experience it. However, unlike many other “harmful traditional practices” such as FGC, child
marriage, and bridewealth, breast flattening is conducted with the intent to protect young girls
from the risks and demands of adulthood, possible early sexual experiences, pregnancy or early
marriage, and promote their future education and welfare. The practice strives to extend the years
that girls can prepare for adulthood and marriage, allowing them to avoid early pregnancy,
continue their education, and delay marriage, such that they may someday maximize their
individual welfare through a good marriage and a successful career. These risks apply to all
Cameroonian girls across different religious, ethnic, social, economic, and political groups, and
this may be why, at least in part, the practice does not appear to follow any socio-economic,
religious, ethnic, or regional pattern.
Given that those who are practicing breast flattening do so in an attempt to promote the
well being of their girls, outright condemnation the practice or criminalization may not be
constructive. Rather, to create sustainable and positive change, the situation calls for a three-
pronged approach that first, raises awareness and public discussion of the practice; second,
educates people on human biology and the futility of breast flattening; and third, addresses the
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
152 The penal code states: “Section 279: Assault Occasioning Grievous Harm. (1) Whoever by force or interference
unintentionally causes to another the injuries described in section 277 of this Code shall be punished with
imprisonment for from five to ten years and in a fit case with fine of from five thousand to five hundred thousand
francs. (2) Where use is made of a weapon, of any explosive, corrosive or toxic substance, of poison, or of any act of
witchcraft, magic or divination the imprisonment shall be from six to fifteen years. Section 280: Simple Harm.
Whoever by force or interference causes intentionally or unintentionally to another any sickness or inability to work
lasting more than thirty days shall be punished with imprisonment for from six months to five years or with fine of
from five thousand to two hundred thousand francs, or with both such imprisonment and fine. Section 281: Slight
Harm. Whoever by force or interference causes intentionally or unintentionally to another any sickness or inability
to work lasting for more than eight days and up to thirty days shall be punished with imprisonment for from six days
to two years or with fine of from five thousand to fifty thousand francs or with both such imprisonment and fine.”
Cameroon Penal Code, Part III: Felonies and Misdemeanours Against Private Interest, 1968, 223.
153 There is an oft quoted saying in Cameroon “spare the rod and spoil the child,” meaning that “children will only
flourish if chastised, physically or otherwise, for any wrongdoing.” Source: “Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child”,
n.d., http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/328950.html.
154 Author’s interviews (August 2011).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
33"
originating conditions of sexual exploitation of girls that cuts across economic, social, and
regional divisions in Cameroon and West Africa. To address originating conditions, it will be
necessary to empower girls and women by drawing attention to this practice and other challenges
discussed above and broaden social services to address those challenges.
To further encourage the process of abandonment of breast flattening in Cameroon in the
immediate future, it may be possible to largely build on the current approaches. Three specific
recommendations include:
1. Conduct a second study on breast flattening to determine long-term medical impacts
and current prevalence. This information can be used to create informed advocacy
campaigns and further raise awareness on the practice. A regional study is also
advisable, as this practice has been reported in West and Central Africa, including
Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Togo, Benin, Guinea-Conakry,155 Kenya, Zimbabwe, and South
Africa.156
2. Support radio and TV educative adverts on breast flattening. This will help bring the
issue to the attention of all Cameroonians, even those who do not have access to printed
news sources. Adverts should provide accurate information about puberty and physical
development, including the average age of breast development (12.25 years157), the
causes of physical development (involuntary hormonal changes, as opposed to voluntary
behavioral changes on the part of the girl), and the positive role that education plays in
allowing girls to protect themselves as they grow.
3. Support a nationwide campaign to encourage dialogue between parents and children
about responsible sexual activity, including family planning and the option to use
contraceptives.
4. Support nationwide radio and TV advocacy adverts, directed at adult males, as well as
the population generally, that explain a male’s role and responsibility in creating early
and unwanted pregnancies. Adverts should focus on girl children in their role as
daughters and students, illustrating how educative and professional opportunities for
Cameroonian girls are cut short when they become mothers and wives at young ages.
This will help draw attention to the problem of early and unwanted pregnancies, and
identify the responsibility for men to help change the situation.
To address the originating conditions of breast flattening, a longer-term approach is necessary, to
address the new vulnerabilities deriving from changing marriage practices, limited or nonexistent
female control of sexual reproductive rights, unequal power relations between girls and men, and
limited understandings of human development stages and puberty. To do so, the Cameroonian
government should take a number of steps:
1. Support a sex education module in public and private schools on the national
curriculum. This course should include information on sex, pregnancy, health, and
""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""""
155 Ortiz, (2010).
156 Personal interviews with community members in Bafut and Bamenda, Cameroon (August 2011).
157 Ndonko, (2006).
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
34"
consensual relationships. While sex education is included in school curriculum, it is
patched together between biology classes and home economics. The high rate of teenage
pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases demonstrate that the sex education available
in schools leaves something to be desired. A module specifically on sex education would
help address this weakness.
2. Improve distribution and access to contraceptives. Many studies have been conducted
that show that abstinence only teaching does not decrease rates of early pregnancy or
STD/STI transmission, while availability and education on contraceptives does. This
could be a step towards empowering women to control their future reproductive lives.
3. Improve access to legal protection, particularly for minors, for unwanted sexual
advances including exploitation, incest, and rape. Girls in Cameroon are considered
responsible for unwanted pregnancies, and in practice have little to no legal protection or
recourse for violations on these fronts. Their complaints are not taken seriously, and as
soon as they are violated, society refuses to take them seriously. Changing this standard
would allow women a new level of independence to pursue better futures with confidence
and courage.
4. Implement international treaties that protect the rights of children and women,
including CEDAW and the CRC, at a national level.
For any approach to be effective, it is necessary to engage the entire community: men, women,
and children, in both rural and urban centers. Moreover, it is necessary that efforts observe how
changes impact individuals and groups, to ensure that changes are positive.
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
35"
APPENDIX A
LIST%OF%INTERVIEWS%CONDUCTED%IN%CAMEROON%
June6August%2011"
"
"
."#)6)#7(8+/%+9:(88+;%/75+."'$%6)$<&=+
+
GENDER!
AGE!
LOCATION!
OCCUPATION!
>$:(8$++
?@+
A#/5+
9'7#$"'+
>$:(8$++
?@+
A#/5+
9'7#$"'+
>$:(8$++
?@+
,(:$"#(+
9'7#$"'+
>$:(8$++
?B+
A#/5+
9'7#$"'+
C(8$++
?D+
A#/5+
9'7#$"'+
>$:(8$++
?E+
,(F7'+
9'7#$"'+
>$:(8$++
?E+
A#/5+
9'7#$"'+
>$:(8$++
?G+
,(F7'+
9'7#$"'+
C(8$++
H?+
A#/5+
I8("+>(3)8)'('/%+
>$:(8$++
HH+
,(F7'+
9'7#$"'JK7"')$+
>$:(8$++
HL+
,(:$"#(+
M$*(8+(&&)&'("'+
>$:(8$++
H@+
,(:$"#(+
M$*(8+(&&)&'("'+
>$:(8$++
H@+
N(/7"#O+
9'7#$"'+
C(8$++
H@+
,(F7'+
9'7#$"'+
>$:(8$++
HB+
,(F7'+
9'7#$"'+
C(8$++
HB+
A#/5+
I8("+>(3)8)'('/%+
>$:(8$+
HD+
,(:$"#(+
M(<P$%+
C(8$++
HE+
,(F7'+
Q"'%$5%$"$7%+
>$:(8$++
RS+
N(/7"#O+
T/7%"(8)&'+
>$:(8$++
RS+
,(F7'+
>(%:$%+
>$:(8$++
RS+
,(F7'+
Q"'%$5%$"$7%+
>$:(8$++
RH+
,(F7'+
>(%:$%+
>$:(8$++
RR+
,(F7'+
4$(3U$%+
>$:(8$++
RE+
,(F7'+
>(%:$%+
>$:(8$++
RE+
,(F7'+
>(%:$%+
>$:(8$++
RE+
,(F7'+
>(%:$%+
>$:(8$++
RE+
,(F7'+
4$(3U$%+
>$:(8$++
RE+
,(F7'+
4$(3U$%+
>$:(8$++
RE+
,(:$"#(+
Q"'%$5%$"$7%+
C(8$++
LS+
,(F7'+
V%)6$%+
C(8$++
LS+
,(:$&&)"*+
4%(#)')/"(8+U$(8$%J+2)W$+#%)6$%+
>$:(8$++
L?+
,(F7'+
V$8$*('$+('+C)")&'%P+/F+9/3)(8+KFF()%&+
>$:(8$++
LH+
,(F7'+
M$(#$%+/F+</:$"X&+*%/75+
"
GENDER+
AGE+
LOCATION+
OCCUPATION+
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
36"
>$:(8$++
LR+
,(:$"#(+
M(<P$%+
>$:(8$++
L@+
,(F7'+
M$(#$%+/F+</:$"X&+*%/75+
>$:(8$++
L@+
,(F7'+
>/"X&+<)F$+
>$:(8$+
L@+
,(:$&&)"*+
A7%&$+
C(8$+
L@+
,(F7'+
V/3'/%+
C(8$++
@?+
,(F7'+
4%(#)')/"(8+U$(8$%+
>$:(8$+
@H+
A#/5+
1$')%$#+"7%&$+
>$:(8$+
@H+
,(F7'+
>(%:$%+
>$:(8$+
@H+
,(F7'+
1$8)*)/7&+8$(#$%+
>$:(8$+
@R+
,(F7'+
YY+
C(8$+
BS+
,(F7'+
Z7&'/:(%P+Z/7%'+Z8$%W+
>$:(8$+
B@+
,(F7'+
1$')%$#+
>$:(8$+
B@+
,(F7'+
1$')%$#+
>$:(8$+
DS+
,(F7'+
1$')%$#+
C(8$+
DS+
,(F7'+
1$')%$#+'$(3U$%+
C(8$+
D@+
,(F7'+
4$3U")3(8+(#6)&/%+'/+4%(#)')/"(8+U$(8$%+
C(8$+
DD+
,(F7'+
4%(#)')/"(8+8$(#$%+
>$:(8$+
DG+
,(F7'+
1$')%$#+F(%:$%+
+
;%/75+."'$%6)$<=+
+
GROUP!NAME+
AGE+
LOCATION+
ATTENDANCE+
[/:$"+/F+C("W(X(+
RSY@S+P$(%&+/8#+
C("W(X(\+,(F7'+
?R+</:$"+
+
."'$%6)$<&+<)'U+W$P+)"F/%:("'&=+
+
NAME!
ORGANIZATION!
LOCATION!
OCCUPATION!
>8(6)("+A#/"W/+
;.]+
N(/7"#O+
V)%$3'/%+/F+;.]X&+^._JK.V9+5%/*%(:+
;$%:()"$+A*/X/+
;.]+
N(/7"#O+
9'7#$"'J%$&$(%3U$%+
^(8)7:(+C/U(:(#/7+
;/6$%":$"'++
N(/7"#O+
;/Z+K#:)")&'%('/%+
A('U(8)(+A*$"#$+
I8("+
N(/7"#O+
I8("+Z(:$%//"+ZU)8#+1)*U'&+K#6)&/%+
;$/%*$''$+4(W7+
1QAK4K+
N(/7"#O+
Q`$37')6$+9$3%$'(%P+/F+1QAK4K+
a:$%+9/"*<$+
."#$5$"#$"'+
,(:$"#(+
N/7'U+a7'%$(3U+I%/*%(::$+Z(:$%//"+
9)"/7+43U("(+
."#$5$"#$"'+
N(/7"#O+
V/3'/%+
1("#P+T/$+9(X(U+
,,Z+
N(/7"#O+
T/7%"(8)&'+
K8()"+A*7)#b/c+
;/6$%":$"'++
A#/5+
V$8$*('$+F/%+C)")&'%P+/F+N/7'U+KFF()%&+
Q6(+>$%"("#$d+a%')d+
."#$5$"#$"'+
_)(+9WP5$+
9'7#$"'J%$&$(%3U$%+
Z/"&'("3$+eZ/::Pf+
C7&&(+
K&&/3)(')/"+Z(:$%/7"()&$+
5/7%+8$+C(%W$')"*+9/3)(8\+
,(:$"#(+
,(:$"#(+
T/7%"(8)&'+
"
!"#$%&'("#)"*+,%$(&'+-.%/")"*0++ + + + + + 1$2$33(+4(5&3/''
+
37"
APPENDIX B: INTERVIEW GUIDE
Presentation of herself
Family (children, spouse, polygamous union?)
Profession
Role in community
Education (level)
Age
Religion (practicing?)
View on community group
View about the community
View about the culture
Group's achievements
Group's remaining/future goals
Girl's Experience in Bafut
Going through puberty (grows tall, develops hips and breasts...)
Expectations for girls (school, family)
Hopes, fears, and challenges
Relationships (with parents, siblings, male and female friends)
If you could give one thing to all girls in Bafut community, what would it be?
Puberty
Age/experience developing (breasts)
Age/experience of first menstruation
Age of first child
Sex education
Knowledge about sex
Age of knowledge
Family communication (her own, and with her children)
Breast flattening
Knowledge (first, current, medias?)
Method/description (instruments, duration (each time/how many weeks), times per day,
location, time of day)
History/origins
Tradition/culture? Family tradition?
Those practicing it
Causes
Effects (long term, short term, psychological, physical, breast feeding)
Opinions (does it work, is it good?)
Advice
Early development
Breast flattening
... One can observe this in practices that try to postpone puberty, as well as the value that is placed on virginity after the onset of menstruation. Breast sweeping, also known as breast ironing, is a practice conducted on adolescent girls, to prevent their breasts from developing in the hopes of delaying the onset of puberty (Tapscott, 2012;Maluleke, 2012). In this practice, a reed broom is used to vigorously sweep and beat the breasts (Tapscott, 2012). ...
... Breast sweeping, also known as breast ironing, is a practice conducted on adolescent girls, to prevent their breasts from developing in the hopes of delaying the onset of puberty (Tapscott, 2012;Maluleke, 2012). In this practice, a reed broom is used to vigorously sweep and beat the breasts (Tapscott, 2012). It is reported to be conducted in various countries, with the aim of protecting adolescent girls from unwanted sexual advances (Tapscott, 2012). ...
... In this practice, a reed broom is used to vigorously sweep and beat the breasts (Tapscott, 2012). It is reported to be conducted in various countries, with the aim of protecting adolescent girls from unwanted sexual advances (Tapscott, 2012). The practice has, however, been criticised for being painful, humiliating and dangerous (Tapscott, 2012). ...
Thesis
Full-text available
The aim of this design research project was to develop a method of encouraging the acceptance of Nula, a new reusable menstrual pad in South Africa. This dissertation initially explored the complexity of trying to introduce a radical innovation and taboo product into the South African market. What makes radical innovations problematic is that they fall outside the frame of reference of potential product users, and therefore often do not reach their full potential when initially introduced. A radically innovative menstrual product adds the additional complexity of taboo to market acceptance. Methods that have been developed to introduce radical innovations are often post-design and product-centric and do not take the user or their context into account. Therefore, behavioural design was selected as a method for behaviour around menstruation to be unpacked in the South African context. In order to engage with the complexity of this behaviour, Activity Theory was used as a systemic theoretical framework. A behavioural hypothesis was formed through the exploration of literature and expert interviews, which was refined to a behavioural statement through interviews with participants. Three problematic themes were identified as encouraging menstrual taboos, namely: uncleanliness, concealment and sexuality. Young adult women were identified as the target audience for the introduction of the Nula pad. A honing strategy was devised as a way of guiding the design development of Nula. The strategy was comprised of four design methods: appropriate technology, designing affordances, designing meaning, and designing mindfulness. All methods were aimed at influencing product design and user behaviour to make the acceptance of a new menstrual product more probable. They sat on a spectrum that ran from continuity, in alignment with what already exists, to development, which challenges problematic preconceptions and mindsets. This spectrum accommodated user’s cultural and social norms, whilst allowing the designer to encourage appropriate shifts. The honing strategy was finally implemented during the design refinement of the Nula reusable pad, which tackled the three themes identified during the behaviour mapping. The success of the strategy in encouraging the acceptance of the Nula pad, was finally evaluated through participant feedback. The approach of this design research project in encouraging the acceptance of a radical innovation which is taboo is valuable not only in menstrual health, but could find use in the introduction of similarly innovative and taboo products. Key Words: Radical Innovation, Taboo, Menstruation, Menstrual Products, Behavioural Design
... It may also be used alongside breast ironing or flattening. The aim of breast binding is to maintain the shape and lift of a girlʼs breast in preparation for marriage (Tapscott 2012: 2). The next section will examine the various reasons forwarded for the practice of breast ironing. ...
... Even polygyny which was common is now on the decline because of economic hard times. While polygyny remains fashionable to a few rich and powerful individuals as a mark of their status, Tapscott (2012) argues that women have no agency over the beginning, duration or end of their matrimonial regimes. Females remain subservient and dependent on males. ...
... As South Africa is a context with a strong religious following, these rules have influenced the forming of societal norms and expectations (Denis, 2006). Traditional African religions have also been criticised for their patriarchal attitudes (Rafudeen & Mkasi, 2016;Tapscott, 2012). ...
Conference Paper
Full-text available
This paper initially explores the complexity of trying to introduce a radical innovation and taboo product into the South African market. What makes radical innovations problematic is that they fall outside the frame of reference of potential product users, and therefore often do not reach their full potential when initially introduced. A radically innovative menstrual product adds the complexity of taboo to market acceptance. Methods that have been developed to introduce radical innovations are often post-design and product-centric and do not take the user or their context into account. This paper explores a design honing strategy, which was developed to encourage the acceptance of a new menstrual product in South Africa through the use of Behavioural Design. Behaviour around menstruation is unpacked using Activity Theory as a framework for understanding human action and its influences. The honing strategy was devised as a way of steering a product during its design development phase. The strategy is comprised of four design methods: Appropriate Technology, Designing Affordances, Designing Meaning and Designing Mindfulness. These sit on a spectrum that runs from continuity, in alignment with what already exists, to development, which challenges problematic preconceptions and mindsets. This accommodates the user's cultural and social norms, whilst allowing the designer to encourage appropriate shifts. The strategy is a holistic approach to the participatory design of radical innovations in taboo fields at a systemic level. All methods are aimed at influencing product design and user behaviour to make the acceptance of a new menstrual product more probable. Such an approach is useful for the introduction of any radical innovation which may be considered taboo.
... Health and wellbeing, including enhancement of sexual life, and also prevention or treatment of disease, may be reasons supporting body modifications. To prevent rape or sexual harassment might also be a reason; that is one the main motivators for the practice of breast ironing or breast flattening by Cameroonian mothers on their adolescent daughters (Tapscott, 2012). ...
Article
Full-text available
The term kawā'ib is mentioned once in the Koran in surah al-Nabā 'verse 33. The term kawā'ib in al-Qur'an and the translation means plump girls. This "plump" translation gives the impression that the Koran uses a vulgar connotation. The purpose of this study is an effort to express the meaning of the term kawā'ib in the al-Qur'an with the semantic approach of Toshihiko Izutsu. This type of research includes library research. To obtain a more precise meaning, the data obtained were interpreted using descriptive analysis and analytic induction. The theory used is the semantics of Toshihiko Izutsu. The principle of Izutsu semantic analysis is to analyze the basic meaning, relational meaning, historical meaning, and weltanschauung. This study resulted in the conclusion that the basic meaning analysis, term kawā'ib in Arabic grammatical is taken from the root word "ka'b" which means something that rises or stands out. The term kawā'ib is the plural of the word "kā'ib" which means a virgin girl with plump breasts. Then the term kawā'ib has a relational meaning: synonyms and antonyms such as al-unṡā, al-nisā`, imra'ah, niswah, hūr, al-fatā, al-rijāl and al-dzakar. In the analysis of historical meaning, the term kawā'ib has the meaning of prominent breasts or plump and virgin breasts. And weltanschauung term "kawā'ib" is a figure of youth in each individual.
Article
The scholarly literature portrays Mao’s China as a font of gender-neutral ideals and masculine heroines, such as the “iron girl.” Although there have been few studies on breast-binding in the Maoist era, there is ample evidence it was practiced by many women. This article questions whether “defeminization,” “gender erasure,” or “gender-neutral” interpretations sufficiently explain the practice of breast-binding and women’s bodily experiences in Mao-era China. Through the analysis of in-depth interviews, periodical articles, and memoirs, this article finds that the gender-neutral framework often oversimplifies and homogenizes women’s diverse experiences. It instead argues that during the Mao era women’s bodily experiences were multifaceted and can only be understood through the reconciliation of the contradictory concepts of “femininities” and “female masculinities.” By exploring women’s silent practice of breast-binding in Mao’s China, this article yields new insight into the study of women and gender.
Article
Full-text available
p>Breast ironing also known as breast flattening, has been considered as one of the most widespread and systematic violations of the universal human rights to personal integrity and sexual autonomy perpetuated against the girl child. This exhilarating practice which is typically carried out by the girl’s mother on the pretext of protecting the female child from teenage sexual harassment and rape, early pregnancy and dropping out of school is unfortunately done to protect family name. Employing the qualitative research approach and the expository analytic method, this research reveals that this practice has ensuring clinical, psychological and social consequences on the female victim. The paper considers this practice a rape based on the fact that the female victim’s consent is never sought. Natural sense of justice demands that the victim whose personality integrity and right to sexual autonomy was to be defiled and destroyed deserves to give an informed consent. Therefore, the paper concludes that this harmful practice is an abuse because it violently violates the girl child right full sexual autonomy and right to possess natural physiological endowment that adorns a woman. This paper therefore recommends that strict laws and penalties should be promulgated to totally abolish and eradicate this barbaric and horrific mutilation.</p
Article
Full-text available
Despite a growing concern over the health and socio-economic consequences of premarital fertility in Africa, few studies have explored the effect of premarital birth on the subsequent likelihood of getting married. While some ethnographic studies have suggested that unmarried African women sometimes use childbearing as a strategy to favour or accelerate transition to marriage, this analysis of the 1991 Cameroon Demographic and Health Survey shows that, overall, premarital childbearing has a strong and negative effect on a young woman's chances of first marriage. The results also reveal, however, that the effect of premarital childbearing on subsequent union varies significantly according to duration in single motherhood. While having a premarital birth makes marriage more likely in the short run, it significantly jeopardises the marriage chances of single women in the long run.
Article
Full-text available
Status quo data on the age at menarche were obtained on samples of Cameroonian girls living in urban (Yaoundé) (n = 205), suburban (n = 505) and rural areas (n = 201). Mean ages at menarche, estimated by probit analysis, are 13.18 years (SD 1.08) in Yaoundé, 13.98 years (SD 1.55) in the suburban area, and 14.27 years (SD 1.65) in the rural area. The early menarcheal age observed in Yaoundé girls attending 'privileged schools' (12.72 years, SD 1.18) substantiates the hypothesis that in good environmental conditions Africans are as early-maturing as Asiatic or Mediterranean populations. Comparison with retrospective data on age at menarche during previous decades reveals the presence of a clear secular trend towards earlier maturation, at a rate of 2.5-3.2 months per decade, only in the main cities of the country (Yaoundé/Douala) and a lack of temporal variation in rural areas. The degree of urbanization influences maturational age and its evolution, probably through improvements in the nutritional standards. PIP "Status quo data on the age at menarche were obtained on samples of Cameroonian girls living in urban (Yaounde) (n=205), suburban (n=505) and rural areas (n=201).... Comparison with retrospective data on age at menarche during previous decades reveals the presence of a clear secular trend towards earlier maturation, at a rate of 2.5-3.2 months per decade, only in the main cities of the country (Yaounde/Douala) and a lack of temporal variation in rural areas. The degree of urbanization influences maturational age and its evolution, probably through improvements in the nutritional standards." (EXCERPT).
Article
In 1997 a study from the Pediatric Research in Office Settings network, based on pubertal staging of >17 000 girls between 3 and 12 years of age, indicated that breast and pubic hair development are occurring significantly earlier than suggested by our current guidelines, especially in African-American girls. In response to this article, the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society undertook a comprehensive review of this topic. The primary conclusions of this review are: 1. The current recommendation that breast development before age 8 is precocious is based on outdated studies. Until 1997, no data were available on pubertal staging in US girls that could have documented a trend to earlier maturation. 2. The 1997 study indicates that stage 2 of breast and pubic hair development is being achieved similar to 1 year earlier in white girls and 2 years earlier in African-American girls than previous studies have shown. 3. Concerns that girls with moderately precocious puberty will be significantly short adults are overstated; most have adult height within the normal range. 4. Therapy with gonadotropin-releasing hormone agonists has not been proven to have a substantial effect on adult height in most girls whose puberty starts between 6 and 8 years of age. 5. New guidelines propose that girls with either breast development or pubic hair should be evaluated if this occurs before age 7 in white girls and before age 6 in African-American girls. No changes in the current guidelines for evaluating boys (signs of puberty at younger than 9 years) can be made at this time.
Article
While prosecutions of women who have had an illegal abortion are rare in Cameroon, women who have a legitimate claim to a legal abortion, e.g. following rape, can rarely take advantage of it. This is because the law in Cameroon is not applied, either when it is violated or when it is indicated. This paper examines the histories of four young women who became pregnant and had an abortion in the Anglophone region of the Cameroon Grassfields. Three of them became pregnant following rape or sexual coercion, in one case by the girl's priest, in the second case by her employer's son, and in the third case by a stranger. The fourth young woman, who sold sex for survival money and food, had two abortions while in prison for committing infanticide following a failed attempt to abort an earlier pregnancy. The four young women were interviewed as part of a qualitative, hospital-based study among 65 women who had had abortions in 1996–97. The women's affecting personal histories illuminate the reality of living under a restrictive abortion law, the troubling conditions in which they have to manage their lives, and the harsh circumstances in which they become pregnant and seek (but may not find) a safe abortion. Résumé Si les femmes qui ont avorté illégalement sont rarement poursuivies au Cameroun, celles qui ont une raison légitime de demander un avortement légal, par exemple après un viol, peuvent rarement l'obtenir. C'est parce que la loi au Cameroun n'est pas appliquée, que ce soit en cas d'infraction ou d'indication. Cet article examine les récits de quatre jeunes femmes qui ont avorté dans la région anglophone de Grassfields au Cameroun. Trois d'entre elles sont tombées enceintes après un viol ou une coercition sexuelle, dans un cas par le prêtre de la jeune fille, dans le deuxième cas par le fils de son employeur et dans le troisième cas par un étranger. La quatrième jeune femme, qui se vendait contre des vivres et de l'argent pour subsister, avait avorté à deux reprises alors qu'elle était emprisonnée pour avoir commis un infanticide après avoir précédemment tenté sans succès d'avorter. Les quatre jeunes femmes ont été interrogées dans le cadre d'une étude qualitative menée dans un hôpital auprès de 65 femmes ayant avorté en 1996–97. Les expériences personnelles des femmes illustrent la réalité de la vie sous une législation restrictive en matière d'avortement, les conditions difficiles dans lesquelles elles doivent se prendre en charge et les circonstances pénibles dans lesquelles elles se retrouvent enceintes et demandent (mais n'obtiennent pas forcément) un avortement sûr. Resumen Aunque las mujeres que han tenido un aborto ilegal rara vez son enjuiciadas en Camerún, aquéllas que tienen motivos legítimos para tener un aborto legal, por ejemplo después de una violación, rara vez pueden hacerlo. Esto se debe a que la nueva ley de Camerún no se aplica, ya sea cuando es violada o cuando está indicada. En este artículo se examinan las historias de cuatro mujeres jóvenes que quedaron embarazadas y tuvieron un aborto en la región anglohablante de las Praderas de Camerún. Tres de ellas quedaron embarazadas después de una violación o coacción sexual: en un caso por el cura de la joven, en el segundo por el hijo de su empleador y en el tercero por un extraño. La cuarta joven, quien vendía sexo para obtener dinero y alimentos para sobrevivir, tuvo dos abortos mientras estaba en prisión por haber cometido infanticidio tras un intento fracasado de abortar un embarazo anterior. Las cuatro jóvenes fueron entrevistadas como parte de un estudio cualitativo hospitalario entre 65 mujeres que tuvieron un aborto en 1996–97. Las conmovedoras historias personales de las mujeres iluminan la realidad de vivir bajo una ley de aborto restrictiva, las penosas condiciones bajo las cuales tienen que manejar su vida y las duras circunstancias en las que quedan embarazadas y buscan (pero no siempre encuentran) un aborto seguro.
Article
A discussion of the legal aspects of female genital mutilation The purpose of this paper is to examine the position of the nurse/midwife in the United Kingdom when involved with the care of a woman or female child who has suffered genital mutilation, which is an illegal practice in this country and most other areas of the world. The types of circumcision commonly practised are introduced, the prevalent reasons for the continuation of the practice among certain ethnic groups are presented, and the range of issues to be considered by the nurse is examined. These include international and national legal aspects which do not exist in isolation and are considered in context with cultural, medical, human rights and gender issues. Nursing legal issues include child protection, consent, advocacy and confidentiality, which invoke the Code Of Professional Conduct of the United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing Midwifery & Health Visiting. Midwives and nurses working in the field of gynaecology have raised questions regarding possible courses of action to take when presented with this issue. Increased knowledge can help to inform those decisions. Therefore, implications for future practice are addressed, together with recommendations to assist nurses with decision making when faced with this scenario in the future.
Cameroon Mass Polygamous Wedding
  • R J Sa
R.J. Sa'ah, "Cameroon Mass Polygamous Wedding," BBC News (Yaoundé, Cameroun, January 12, 2007), sec. News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/6254935.stm.
The Bafut Chiefdom: A Panoramic Geographical Study
  • Ngwa
Ngwa, "The Bafut Chiefdom: A Panoramic Geographical Study," 33.
Letting them die: why HIV/AIDS intervention programmes fail Oxford: International African Institute. 102 Author's interview with a 26-year-old unwed mother
  • Ibid
101 Ibid., 14. citing Campbell, C. 2003. " Letting them die: why HIV/AIDS intervention programmes fail. " Oxford: International African Institute. 102 Author's interview with a 26-year-old unwed mother, Bafut, Cameroon (August 2011).