Eugénie Baccot

Documentary Photographer

Hands Off the Breasts!

It’s Monday in Yaoundé. Hair is all well braided, and regulation pink shirts washed. Cathy abruptly asks, “Who, among you, has ever had their breasts ironed”? The 28-year-old woman is one of the association Renata's 15,000 "aunties", there to intervene in schools across the country raising awareness among youth about sexual violence. After a brief silence, a few arms stretch timidly towards the sky among he crowd.

One in four Cameroonian women have had their breasts "ironed". Less publicized than female circumcision, this ancestral massage, performed by mothers on the bust of young girls with burning objects, stones or sticks, aims to slow down the development of the budding breasts. The goal: protect young girls from men's desire, delay the age of first sexual encounter and avoid teenage pregnancies. This practice, which amounts to torture, has repercussions in terms of health, not to mention sexual trauma. For several years, the "aunties" of Cameroon have been sharing their experiences and organizing educational campaigns at schools and in families in an effort to stifle its practice. It’s a struggle being waged from the inside by thousands of women, and on the radio waves where Cathy intervenes over and over again, speaking on the trend which is on decline. Conducted in 2005, a survey of nearly 5,700 women in the country revealed that 24% of them had their breasts ironed at puberty. The practice concerns all religions and all strata of society. In 2013, after a massive prevention campaign, the second national report now shows a prevalence of only 12%.

Three hours by bus north of the capital, Cathy joins Michèle, a young auntie from Bafia, who also suffered from ironing as a child. About twenty young girls are seated on raw wood benches set up for a safe space discussion in the neighborhood. “We iron your breasts because we think that they attract boys. And if tomorrow we discover it's actually the nose or the eyes, what then do we do? We cut off the nose, we poke out the eyes?” provokes Cathy. The glances are serious, but little by little, the words become free.

(trans. of text by) Clémence de Blasi // freelance journalist //