In 2013, UNICEF published a comprehensive report about Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM/C). FGM/C, a cultural practice that forces girls and women to have their external genitalia removed either partially or fully in the name of preserving chastity. This practice is inflicted on upwards of 98 percent of girls and women in countries such as Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti, and Egypt. Globally, an estimated 140 million girls and women in 29 countries have been subjected to FGM/C, which can have devastating consequences such as death, pain, a normal sexual life, and later problems giving birth.
In Cameroon, only 1 percent of girls and women in Cameroon undergo FGM/C, although some experts such as Professor Verkijika Fannso, a professor at the University of Yaounde One, say that the percentage doesn’t reflect the real numbers, as 80 percent of Cameroonians visit traditional – not medical – doctors.
In 2014, Cameroon and the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a campaign against FGM/C. This campaign signaled a great show of support for healthier lives for women and girls, and it gives the impression to the rest of the world that Cameroon is on the cutting edge of tackling gender inequality. Yet it belies the fact that there is another damaging, culturally-ingrained practice that affects girls and women in Cameroon: breast ironing.
In Cameroon, mothers and grandmothers pound their daughters developing breasts with hard, highly-heated objects such as stones, pestles, or coconut shells to make them stop growing. One in four girls in Cameroon (and 3-4 million girls in Africa) is forced to endure this torture – their mothers and grandmothers do it in the belief that a girl is less likely to attract the male gaze and be raped if she has a flat chest.
Chi Yvonne Leina is a Cameroonian journalist, community leader, and digital media change agent dedicated to shining a light on the realities of this oft-discussed practice, and she works tirelessly to help amplify the voices of ordinary women in Africa. After years of discrimination working as a woman in traditional print and broadcast media, Leina broke with the status quo and began to use her journalism experience to expose both breast ironing and the inhumane treatment of widows.
When she was a girl of fourteen, Leina witnessed her grandmother breast ironing the budding breasts of her cousin. A few weeks later, when her grandmother tried to subject her to the same “treatment,” Leina refused. Saying “no” and standing up against something she felt was wrong made her realize that a woman’s power is her voice.
After making international headlines when she chose to publish articles about breast ironing, Leina went on to launch a campaign to eradicate the practice. Through a combination of public awareness campaigns, grassroots organizing and digital media she was successful in reaching 20,000 women and girls who have sworn to end the practice.
After the great success of her campaign, Leina founded an organization called Gender Danger and she is currently collaborating with Cameroon’s National Ministry of Gender to expand the campaign nationwide. Her vision has grown to include founding a media center to train women and young girls to use digital media and citizen journalism to educate and transform society.
Gender Danger is The Advice Project’s first international partner. Currently, nine teen girls in Bamenda, Cameroon, are taking The Advice Project’s Media, Writing, and Empowerment Class with Fomuso Blessing Nabila, who is both Gender Danger’s Country Director and The Advice Project’s Cameroon Program Director.
While it is heartening to see the strides being made by Cameroon and the WHO to eradicate FGM/C, there is still so far to go in regards to the fight against other damaging acts of gender violence such as breast ironing. Below is a letter Leina wrote to her thirteen-year-old self. It contains advice about how to fight against practices that are not only deeply ingrained in her culture, but also so well hidden and/or that they are often ignored by the media. It is a powerful, inspiring call to action.
Melissa Banigan Founder and Managing Editor, Advice Project Media ___________________________________________________
Dear Thirteen-Year-Old Leina,
It`s me, the Leina inside of you, your soul! How have you been my sweet girl? You are fast becoming a woman! Your hips are widening and your breasts are budding. You know the blood stain on your pants last week? It was not a boo-boo, it was your period, and it came from the woman inside of you. When you walk the streets, the boys now fix their eyes on you. How does that make you feel? They shouldn’t be staring, and I hope you’re not embarrassed or sad about the changes happening to your body. What is happening to you is natural and you are beautiful just the way you are.
I know how scared you are of becoming a woman. You have seen them work from dawn to dusk yet remain the poorest people. You have seen them being beaten up by men, disgraced when they lose their husbands and become widows and die while having babies. Your mind does not understand why women are so poorly treated.
Why can’t grandma’s eyes get off your chest? You saw how she took a hot stone and ironed your cousin Aline’s breasts. Will she try to do this to you? Sadly, the day will soon come when she tells you that to be a good girl, you need to undergo the torture. That it is for your own good. But the Leina inside you won’t agree. Already, puberty is causing your budding breasts to ache. They are so sore and hurt when you touch or shake them. Will you allow someone – even your Grandma – to use a hot stone to press them? No way! In fact, you will raise your voice and yell, NO!
In that moment, you will learn that your voice is your only weapon against the secret traditions in your community that threaten to hurt you. Once you raise your voice to expose the secrets, they will lose their potency and you will be free!
Breast ironing cannot stop any girl from becoming pregnant. Every young girl has to be taught about sex and not have her body destroyed. Leina, only you have the power to keep yourself away from sex until you are ripe and ready. Do not allow anyone – even your elders who you trust and love – destroy your body in the name of “fixing” it and do not allow any man to touch your intimate parts before you are good and ready. Use your voice to shout, NO!
You are not only going to say NO for yourself. When you grow up you will build a platform to save millions of other girls and women from the clutches of silence. That’s why you have to finish your chores fast every night and get to your study table. You must make your mark in school. Do not let anyone tell you that because you are a girl you do not deserve to dream big. You see, your body is female but your soul – the Leina deep inside of you – is neither a girl nor a boy. Gender does not define you, but rather is a part of you.
You are a fast learner and you are so strong. Rely on your strength to shake the world. One day, you will expose and eradicate the suffering of women in your community. If you pay attention to the following words of advice, you won’t remain in your smoke-filled kitchen, and instead will speak for the lowly even as you climb higher and higher.
Your poor background will not keep you from doing remarkable things. Let your studies be your first priority. In the pages of your books you will find your path out of poverty and obscurity. You came into this world for a reason and have a unique purpose – that is why there is only one you. There is no other person on the planet like you! You were born to create solutions to the secret problems in your community. Never give up. That is the way you’ll make the world a better place. Fulfill your purpose! Never permit mediocrity, always strive for excellence and if you fail, wake up the next day and strive again to finish what you’ve started.
Do not fear, you have the power to change things, just pay attention to the right path.
Leina ________________________________________________ *Note – Advice Project Media (“Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self”) and authors hold the copyright to all of the content on this website, meaning that this letter (or portions thereof) cannot be reprinted without permission. Please send all inquiries about reproduction here.