Douala, Cameroon

By Joe Penney

Every Friday afternoon, Julie Ndjessa, 28, invites the teenage girls in her neighborhood 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 got 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 goal 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 harbors 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.

Julie and other women who have survived the practice have formed an association to fight it over the past decade 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.