Education, not condemnation, say women leaders who survived violence


Angela, 15, from Hyderabad, India. Her vision of a violence-free world would be to live like the mermaid in her painting – free and happy. PHOTO/Stella Paul/IPS

Sally Mboumien remembers the day she pressed a steaming hot stone against her chest. In Bawock, the rural community of western Cameroon where she grew up, young girls often had their young, sprouting breasts flattened with a hot iron or a hammer or spatulas that had been heated over burning coals.

This was good for the girls because it would keep them safe from men, she had often heard her elders say. So one day, when her mother had gone to visit relatives, a 11-year-old Mboumien overheated a stone and tried to iron her own breasts.
“The 16 Days come as we experience a global outcry over sexual harassment and violence. Now it is time for action to end violence against women.” –Nanette Braun of UN Women

The stone burnt the delicate skin and tissue, leaving deep black scars over her breasts. Her waves of pain were overshadowed with fear. Terrified, the little girl hid her scars from everyone, including her mother.

“I did what everyone said was good. But I was only a victim of ignorance,” says Mboumien – now one of Cameroon’s most vocal advocates for Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) for girls and young women.

According to the United Nations, breast ironing or breast flattening affects 3.8 million women around the world, including in Cameroon, Benin, Ivory Coast, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Togo, Zimbabwe and Guinea-Conakry. It is also one of the five most under-reported crimes relating to gender-based violence.

Although it is done in an attempt to delay puberty and safeguard the girl from unwanted sexual desire, breast ironing exposes girls to numerous health problems such as infections, cysts, permanent damage of the tissue, cancer and complete disappearance of one or both breasts. Besides which, it’s an utter violation of a girl’s sexual and physical rights and integrity.

Coinciding with UN Women’s Orange Campaign – an initiative that generates public awareness for 16 days of activities against gender-based violence from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10 – Mboumien, the Founder of Common Action for Gender Development, a SRHR Advocacy organization, is planning to hit the road. She will be seen doing what she does best: educating people in local communities on the sexual and reproductive rights of girls and women and why it is crucial for society to abandon any practices that violate these rights.

Breast ironing is embedded deep into the local culture which means people believe in their heart that this is good – and that is what makes it so hard to eradicate, Mboumien says. “The best way to fight this is that instead of focusing on one form of violence (breast ironing), we focus on educating people on SRHR in general.”

Denial of dignity amounts to violence

Thousands of miles away from Mboumien, Bharti Singh Chauhan, a girls’ rights activist in India’s Rajasthan state, is also participating in the Orange Campaign. Her plan: watch a movie.

In a state where almost 40 percent of all girls are married before 18 years of age and where it is still hard for girls, especially those from marginalized communities, to get an education, watching a film is both a symbolic and an actual move forward. At Praveenlatha Sansthan, a charity Chauhan founded, she is empowering over 100 teenage girls to fight the dual evil of child marriage and illiteracy.

Inter Press Service for more

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