DOUALA, CAMEROON -- A small pack of elementary-school-age kids surrounded me every time I left my favorite lunch spot, Chez Noura. They held up old wine bottles filled with fried groundnuts. "Madame, please, I need to eat," they shouted.
I never bought the nuts. I ran the eight-foot gantlet from the Lebanese restaurant's entrance to my parked Toyota SUV, with my 2-year-old daughter, Elle, slung over my hip. Sometimes I gave the kids taffy or leftover shawarma. Usually, I quickly strapped Elle into her car seat and, like many expatriate wives in this poor West African nation, tried to avoid the swirl of desperate children.
One afternoon, however, I saw something impossible to ignore. Unaware that one side of her tank top had slid off her tiny shoulder, a young girl standing in the crowd next to my car clutched a bottle of nuts under one arm and waved to me with the other, revealing a long, wide scar where a small nipple or budding breast should have been.
My eyes darted from the girl's missing breast to her big brown eyes and back to her chest. She disappeared in the distance as I drove away. The encounter revealed to me that a Cameroonian tradition I had heard vague whispers about might actually exist: breast ironing, in which women flatten adolescent girls' developing breasts, intending to protect the girls from the dangers of sex, consensual or otherwise.
The phenomenon gained some international attention in 2006, thanks to a campaign by a nonprofit organization. Since then, the State Department has included breast ironing in its annual reports on human rights abroad. But despite the increased attention, the practice persists. It affects as many as one in four girls, according to local health activists. Some mothers massage hot grinding-stones into their daughters' chests, while others pound the tissue with heated plantain peels. Sometimes, women rub kerosene or medicinal herbs on adolescent breasts.
How can anyone think we are the same, having what seems to be a public event for male and female circumcision?