By Tansa MusaTue Jul 11, 11:25 AM ET
Worried that her daughters' budding breasts would expose them to the risk of sexual harassment and even rape, their mother Philomene Moungang started 'ironing' the girls' bosoms with a heated stone.
"I did it to my two girls when they were eight years old. I would take the grinding stone, heat it in the fire and press it hard on the breasts," Moungang said.
"They cried and said it was painful. But I explained that it was for their own good."
"Breast ironing" -- the use of hard or heated objects or other substances to try to stunt breast growth in girls -- is a traditional practice in West Africa, experts say.
A new survey has revealed it is shockingly widespread in Cameroon, where one in four teen-agers are subjected to the traumatic process by relatives, often hoping to lessen their sexual attractiveness.
"Breast ironing is an age-old practice in Cameroon, as well as in many other countries in West and Central Africa, including Chad, Togo, Benin, Guinea-Conakry, just to name a few," said Flavien Ndonko, an anthropologist and local representative of German development agency GTZ, which sponsored the survey.
"If society has been silent about it up to now it is because, like other harmful practices done to women such as female genital mutilation, it was thought to be good for the girl," said Ndonko.
"Even the victims themselves thought it was good for them."
However, the practice has many side effects, including severe pain and abscesses, infections, breast cancer, and even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts.
The survey of more than 5,000 girls and women aged between 10 and 82 from throughout Cameroon, published last month, estimated that 4 million women in the central African country have suffered the process.
"You ask me why I did it?" said Moungang. "When I was growing up as a little girl my mother did it to me just as all other women in the village did it to their girl children. So I thought it was just good for me to do to my own children."
The practice is now more common in urban areas than in villages, because mothers fear their children could be more exposed to sexual abuse in towns and try to suppress outward signs of sexuality, the survey said.
Its findings have prompted a nationwide campaign to educate mothers about its dangers and to try to eradicate it. A similar campaign some years ago helped drastically to reduce rates of female genital mutilation in Cameroon.
"A girl...has to be proud of her breasts because it is natural. It is a gift from God. Allow the breasts to grow naturally. Do not force them to disappear or appear," said a leaflet from the campaign.
Moungang said she stopped ironing her daughters' breasts after one girl developed blisters and abscesses.
"I took her to the hospital and the doctor scolded me and advised never to do it again because it could ruin my daughter," she said.
The practice is most common in the Christian and animist South of the country, rather than in the Muslim North and Far North provinces, where only 10 percent of women are affected.
"Massaging the breasts with hot objects is painful, very painful, and can completely destroy the breasts," said Bessem Ebanga, executive secretary of women's rights group RENATA, herself a former victim.
"Some girls could be traumatized throughout their lives and their sexual behavior could be disturbed forever."
For Ndonko, the campaign is a battle to respect the physical integrity of young girls -- with broader implications for human rights.
"If nothing was done today, tomorrow the very parents may even resolve to slice off the nose, the mouth or any other part of the girl which they think is making her attractive to men."