In 2007, the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) became one of the first agencies in the west to report on the practice. Dr. Flavien Ndonko of GTZ, in research he shared with theGrio, listed among breast ironing’s many dangerous consequences: high fever, breast cancer, severe chest pain, infection as a result of scarification, cysts, breast deformities and complete disappearance of the breasts.
“Saying that breasts are destroyed is an understatement,” Dr. Ndonko said in previously published reports. “Adolescents are traumatized, mutilated. This is a serious damage not only on their physical integrity, but also on their psychological well-being.”
Despite the suffering called by breast ironing, it persists in both rural areas and cities. Older women, often in secret and unbeknownst to men, undertake the torturous operation with faith that it will prevent the difficulties suffered by young women who experience sexual assault, or sex without preparation.
Authorities have tried to stress the need for education and contraception as humane, effective substitutes, yet this tradition, which some says dates back to the 1800s, continues.
Several months after Leina witnessed her cousin’s agony, her grandmother attempted to iron her breasts as well. Leina resisted and threatened to alert the entire neighborhood, so she was spared. “From that day it came to my mind that when you use your voice you can actually free yourself from some things,” she said of the incident.
This experience influenced the young woman’s decision to study journalism and women’s studies as a university student.
During the years since, Leina, has worked as a journalist for magazines and in television, reporting extensively on breast ironing. One year ago she also founded Gender Danger, a non-profit that helps spread awareness about breast ironing in the hopes of ending the practice.
Mrs. Agwetang is one of the 35 volunteers working for Gender Danger in Cameroon who go into communities at least once a month to lecture girls and women about the dangers of breast ironing.
“We have women that we have trained on this very issue who can go out and also support other women,” Agwetang said.
Leina’s organization has already reached over 15,000 women. In the near future it hopes to reach many more girls and women in Cameroon who are affected by breast ironing daily.
Because the custom is clothed in secrecy, taking place behind closed doors between women, Agwetang believes many girls don’t know how to process the pain.
“Sometimes there are certain things that happen to a girl at an age, and [at] that time she doesn’t understand,” she told theGrio. “She just goes through the things and she bares the pain and she just prays about it.”
For Leina what is most troubling about breast ironing is the resulting the emotional scars.
“Your mom is doing that to you. What is the message she’s passing to you as a little girl?” Leina said. “That you’re having breasts: It’s wrong, it’s shameful. You don’t like your body.”
As the practice is taboo, victims often suffer in silence. But thanks to Leina and other activists fighting to end it, more victims and even perpetrators have been speaking out against it.
“I think it’s the culture,” Agwetang said. “They don’t want to talk about certain things. But now that we are going out… they open up and they tell you their experiences. And even some parents, they tell you what they did to their children and they really regret it.”
Follow Nia Hamm on Twitter at @niaahamm
This article has been edited. This article has been corrected to reflect the correct founding period of Gender Danger.