There are cultural practices which are supposedly done with good intentions but appear dehumanizing and wicked in modern times. Such practices are often premised on ignorance as those who perpetuate it may claim to have good reasons for doing so without knowing they were doing more harm than good to victims of such practice. These practices exist in various cultures around the world but the focus here is on women and young girls in Africa. Here are harmful cultural practices in Africa perpetuated against young girls, though with good intention premised on ignorance.
Breast ironing also known as breast flattening or breast sweeping, is the pounding or massaging of a young girl’s breasts using hard or heated objects to make the breast stop developing or disappear. The hard object is heated in fire. A young girl begins to pass through this process once she attains the age of puberty. Her mother, grandmother, aunt or other women in the family do this to her to protect her from rape or immorality because flattening or ironing her breasts makes her look unattractive to men.
Breast sweeping which is also a form of breast flattening, is done if a young girl’s breasts are perceived by her mother or grandmother to be too big for her age. A reed broom is used to ‘sweep’ the bare breasts of the young girl regularly to make them ‘grow back’ or stop growing. This was done to protect the girl from abuse by men who are likely to see her breasts and think she is mature enough to be approached for sex even with mutual consent.
Breast flattening was found in some Africa countries but more common in Douala, Cameroon. This practice is seen as a protection to girls by making them look like children for a long time and reduce likelihood of pregnancy, sexual harassment, rape, forced marriage or kidnapping. There is huge outcry and sensitization against this practice.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
This is the practice of partially or totally cutting off the external genitalia of young girls for non-medical reasons. It could involve partially or completely removing the clitoris, removal of the lips that surround the clitoris (labia), narrowing of vaginal opening by creating a covering seal, or any other injury to the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. This was basically done to protect the young girls from immorality and prepare them for womanhood. In some societies, a woman is perceived to be cleaner and more beautiful if her genitals are cut. To those who practice FGM especially in societies with low literacy level, this practice which reduces libido, and narrows opening, makes prevents a woman from having illicit sexual relations and makes her faithful in marriage. The young girl’s mother either participates or supports other women who mutilate the genitalia of the young girl as part of their culture. This practice which still exists in some parts of Africa and Asia has faced wide condemnation and even criminalized in some countries.
The practice of fattening a young woman to make her attractive to men and ready for marriage cuts across countries in Africa. Women in some parts of Mauritius, Mauritania and Nigeria are expected to be fat in order to look attractive to the opposite gender for marriage. So to protect a young woman from the shame of rejection for marriage or looking to lean and impoverished for marriage, she was confined in a room where she was force-fed with fattening food to look chubby and ‘attractive’. Reports have it that in many cases, the women are force-fed by their parents (up to 16,000 calories a day) to attain that body type. In a number of cases this was against the wish of the ladies forced to be fat. In such parts of Africa, full-figured women are considered beautiful. In Efik speaking communities in Nigeria room is at the center of a centuries-old rite of passage from maidenhood to womanhood. In Mauritania, if women are pale and weak, they are forced to put on weight by sending them to fat camps. This is where they are force-fed high-fat foods and in some cases, even given drugs to increase their appetites.
This is the process of using heavy coils to elongate the neck. Though it was not primarily carried out by women, they however gave their support before young girls commenced this procedure. This is practiced among the Ndabele tribe of Zimbabwe but it was also very common amongst the Kayan Lahwi tribe of Thailand, and Padaung tribe of Burma. In these places you find several women moving like Ostrich or giraffes, and this is from where they derived the name – giraffe women. Women wear heavy coils around their necks and keep on adding these coils over the years to elongate their neck. The Padaung people of Burma believe that having long neck is the symbol of wealth, position and beauty. Apart from being a beauty tradition, it is also said that many myths or histories lie behind the long-neck custom. Some said that wearing brass coils around necks in the past functioned to protect the women from tigers, as they bite people’s necks. Others claim that it made them resemble the myth dragon, but it is also claimed that long necks were intended to make them look less attractive, hence they are unlikely to be taken as slaves in the past.
In some parts of Africa, women are involved in what could be described as one of the most unbelievably painful and scary beauty practices across the world – scarification. This is the practice of scratching, etching, burning, branding, or superficially cutting designs, pictures, or words into the skin as a permanent body modification. This could take up to 6–12 months to heal. This practice is common among women in the Karo tribe of Ethiopia and Dinka tribe in South Sudan. Both boys and girls are involved in this horrific practice. While girls are marked with beautiful patterns, boys are marked with three parallel lines, to represent entry into manhood. What a strange way to look beautiful. Among the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria, tribal marks are for identity and beautification. Tribal mark is also a form of scarification.
In some parts of Africa, there is a bizarre cultural practice referred to as sexual rite of passage. It is very common in Malawi. This consists of an initiation process where men called “hyena” are paid to have unprotected sex with young girls as young as 12 years old after their first menstruation. In Malawi a “hyena” is any man hired by families to have sex with girls after their first menstruation. Sexual rite of passage also known as sexual cleansing is seen as a way to ritually cleanse girls after their first period, usually within the first three days. The girls are given impression that this would protect them from evil that would befall them for failing to do so. They were told they will get infections or their skins will strangely peel off is they failed to have unprotected sex with a man after their initiation. Sexual cleansing also happens in other life stages such as after an abortion or when a woman becomes a widow.
Sexual cleansing is seen as a sacred rite when performed as a ritual, having the power to cleanse evil spirits and sanctify the girls involved. This practice which is oftentimes the young girls are forced to do against their will is part of the initiation into womanhood. The young girls are led to the initiation camp by women in the village called anamkungwi in some parts of Malawi. At the camp the girls are taught how to have sex with men by showing them various positions and asking them to lie on top of each other to demonstrate how it happens. After the initiation the girls are told to go home and have unprotected sex with men older than them to cleanse them of childhood. The girls are told that they were now woman enough and should engage in sexual act which must be unprotected. In some villages, “hyenas” hired for this task occasionally have sex with many girls in a single village who have gone through initiation together. The health hazard seemed not to bother the women who led their daughters and nieces into this act. Sexual cleansing has since been outlawed in Malawi though some villages still practice it secretly.
Use of lip plates is popular in parts of Africa, especially among the Mursi tribe of Ethiopia, Makonda people of Tanzania, Kichepo of Southern Sudan, and Lobi women of Ivory Coast and Ghana. Here women wear lip plates to appear more beautiful and to attract men for marriage. The procedure also looks painful. It begins when a girl attains puberty. Plates of increasing size are inserted on the lower lip to stretch it until she can insert a full-size lip plate. This practice was originally done to stop slavery since the women looked mutilated and, therefore, pronounced unfit to be slaves. That was back then. It is seen today as a symbol of beauty and recognition for this tribe’s women. To further showcase their skills and personality the women decorate the plates. Even with large plates hanging down their lips they still look attractive to men in their tribe.