Julie Ndjessa, pictured here on the left, was just 16 when her mother took a hot stone and pressed it to her chest.
Painful as it is, this practice of “breast ironing” is not uncommon in Cameroon, where mothers sometimes flatten their daughters’ breasts in the belief that it will make them less attractive to men, protecting them from early pregnancy. The custom can cause long-term health problems, and Ndjessa now campaigns against it.
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"Despite the successes that women like Julie have had battling negative practices in their communities, theirs’ is an uphill battle."
Every Friday afternoon, Julie Ndjessa, 28, invites the teenage girls in her neighbourhood in Douala over to her house on a dirt road where she lives with her mother, father and cousin. Giggling, they play clapping games and chat loudly with each other about the week’s escapades. Then Julie gets down to business: educating the young women in her community about the many dangers they face before reaching adulthood.
Over the past few years, one of the main topics she discusses is called “breast-ironing,” a practice used by some mothers in Cameroon to flatten their pubescent daughters’ growing breasts. Done with the intention of protecting young women from early pregnancy by making them less attractive to men, breast ironing is extremely painful and has dangerous long-term health consequences.
There are few people more qualified to speak to young women about this practice than Julie, whose mother Genevieve took a hot stone to her chest when she was 16. She said she harbours no bad feelings toward her mother, who she said did it to try to protect her from the prying eyes of men as she became a woman.
Over the past decade, Julie and other women who have survived the practice have formed an association to fight it through grassroots measures such as workshops and educational sessions throughout the country. Their efforts are supported in part by the German development agency GIZ, with the campaign in Cameroon led by anthropologist and aid worker Dr. Flavien Ndonko. The national campaign has been remarkably successful, dropping the rate of the practice by 50 percent in less than 10 years, according to Cameroonian government surveys.
Julie takes pride in the fact that thanks to the network of human rights workers like herself, young women today are much less likely to go through what she did. But the challenges young women in poverty in Cameroon face are many: rape, early pregnancy, STIs, incest and the everyday problems that come with machismo. There simply aren’t enough resources to address them all.
On the last night I was with her, Julie received some bad news: her cousin, only 16 years old, was pregnant. She felt betrayed, having said to her only two days earlier during the group session that the girls should feel open discussing anything with them.
I left the next morning and she was still in a state of distress. How should she advise her cousin what to do? An abortion would be illegal and risky, and if her conservative Catholic parents found out that Julie had recommended it to her cousin, she would be thrown out of her house. But her cousin was only 16 and the father of the unborn child likely not much older; they would not be able to afford to bring up the child alone, putting financial stress on Julie and her parents’ extremely meager incomes.
Despite the successes that women like Julie have had battling negative practices in their communities, theirs’ is an uphill battle. This was not the first time Julie had had to deal with a crisis like an early pregnancy in the family, and it likely won’t be the last.