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Education Campaign Targets Cultural Practice of Breast Ironing in Cameroon

A campaign in Cameroon is calling attention to a tradition said to be potentially harmful to young girls; it's breast ironing. Nearly a quarter of Cameroonian women are said to have experienced the practice – whereby heavy or hot objects are placed on a young girl's breasts in an effort to keep the breasts from growing. Many well-intended mothers believe it prevents the onset of puberty, and may prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Dr. Robinson Mbu is an obstetrician gynecologist at Cameroon’s principal maternity in Yaoundé. Voice of America reporter Angel Tabe asked him about the unusual practice. He says, "Breast ironing, from what we understand, is a practice where during the period when the breasts start pushing… before puberty, some people believe that when you use hot water [or] a warm spoon, and massage the breasts, they will either shrink or not develop the way they are supposed to."

Dr. Mbu clarifies that the practice is not common among educated communities. “It is something that is done on the level of the villages, because there is no woman who’s gone to school who would use anything hot on the child’s breasts," he says. "When you know the development of a young girl, from nine, ten years that is very normal.”

He says there are no studies so far to prove the effectiveness of the practice, because breast development is always associated with age. “ We don’t know. I can’t tell whether anybody had their breasts compressed while young - we classify according to what gynecologists use, according to volume, with zero being those of a child who has not reached puberty.”

Although no scientific studies have been carried out to establish the effects of breast ironing, Dr. Mbu speaks of possible immediate dangers. “ For somebody to really give evidence, you have to collect some young girls, breast-iron them and see how the breasts will develop in the future," he says. "Nobody has carried out that kind of research yet. Most likely, you may burn the skin under the breasts, the structures just below the skin under the breasts, but I know that they don’t use objects that are very hot.”

Concluding that the practice is not beneficial, the doctor advises it be discontinued. “I would say it has no advantage. It is not the size of the breast that makes a woman," he says. "It’s a practice that should be discouraged completely, whether or not people have gone to school, because it has no benefits.”

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