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Although no official study into the practice has been conducted, a Guardian revealed dozens of cases of Breast Ironing in the UK based on anecdotal evidence from all over Britain. The Guardian talked to a multitude of activists, including one who claimed to have seen 15–20 cases in the South London town of Croydon, Surrey.
Community workers in London, Yorkshire, Essex and the West Midlands have told the Guardian of “cases in which pre-teen girls from the diaspora of several African countries are subjected to the painful, abusive and ultimately futile practice.”
The Guardian article also documents the testimony of British-Somali anti-FGM campaigner and psychotherapist Leyla Hussein who told them that “she has spoken to five women in her North London clinic who had been victims of Breast Ironing. “They were all British women, all British citizens,” Hussein said. “One of the women said she became flat-chested as a result of the practice,” said Hussein. “She kept saying: ‘I have a boy’s chest.’ But no one has ever questioned her about it. No one had physically checked her. This was in North London, just down the road,” said Hussein.”
The United Nations (UN) describes Breast Ironing as one of the five most under-reported crimes relating to gender-based violence in the world, along with bride-napping in Central Asia, traumatic fistula, a condition that can occur as the result of vicious sexual violence, in Africa, femicide in women in Central America, and child marriage.
What is Breast Ironing?
Breast Ironing, also referred to as Breast Flattening, is defined by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as follows, “Breast flattening is the painful practice of bringing girls breasts into contact with hard or heated objects (which may vary in nature but may include stones, belts, pestles and heated implements) to suppress or reverse the growth of breasts by destroying the tissue.
Breast flattening is often performed, particularly by family members, wishing to protect a girl from the appearance of puberty or being an adult woman in order to avoid any potential sexual interest, early pregnancy or sexual harassment or violence. There are potentially significant physical and psychological consequences and risks related to this practice.”
Breast Ironing usually starts with the first signs of puberty, which can be as young as nine years old. The practice is commonly performed by the girl’s own family, 58% of the time by the girl’s mother or grandmother.
It involves the use of rudimentary tools such as stones, hammers, spatulas and pestles, that are heated and then applied in a pounding motion to the developing breasts of the young girl. The process often occurs at night or early in the morning when everyone in the household is asleep and will continue for months, sometimes years, until the knot of the budding breast is crushed in order for the breasts to “disappear” or delay the development of the breasts entirely.
Girls subjected to this abuse are told by the perpetrators that it is necessary to continue with this practice until it no longer hurts.
The Breast Ironing process itself is very painful and as well as the physical pain and suffering it inflicts, it may make girls feel ashamed of their bodies, inflicting psychological pain and suffering too. However, the girls generally believe that the practice is being carried out for their own good, so they will often remain silent about the fact they have been a victim of the practice.
This abusive practice should not be confused with Breast Binding. Some adolescent girls and boys may choose to bind their breasts using constrictive materials due to gender transformation or identity – this is not the same issue as Breast Ironing; however, it may also cause similar health problems.
What are the health consequences of Breast Ironing?
The resultant health issues caused by Breast Ironing include burns, deformities and psychological trauma similar to female genital mutilation (FGM).
More specifically, Breast Ironing can cause serious physical issues such as:
- Abscesses, a painful collection of pus that develops under the skin.
- Cysts, fluid-filled lumps under the skin that can develop into abscesses.
- Constant pain.
- Tissue damage.
- Discharge of milk.
- Breasts becoming significantly different shapes or sizes.
- Severe fever.
- Mastitis, an inflammation of breast tissue.
- The complete disappearance of one or both breasts.
- Difficulty breastfeeding.
- An increased likelihood of breast cancer.
Breast Ironing does not stop the breasts from growing, but development may be slowed down.
It also can cause serious mental psychological health issues including, but not limited to:
- Low self-esteem.
- Nightmares and other sleep problems.
- Body dysmorphia.
What are the signs that a girl could be at risk of Breast Ironing?
Young pubescent girls usually aged between 9 and 15 years old from practising communities are most at risk of Breast Ironing. Breast Ironing is often a well-kept secret between the young girl and her mother; usually the father remains completely unaware this is happening, but not always.
When it occurs in the UK, unlike FGM where the girl is usually taken abroad for the procedure, Breast Ironing is typically carried out in the girl’s own home.
Those working with girls and young women, such as healthcare workers and school staff, should be trained to identify the signs and symptoms of girls who may be at risk of or have already undergone Breast Ironing.
Some of the signs that a girl could be at risk of Breast Ironing may include:
- A girl is embarrassed about her developing body.
- A girl’s own mother may have undergone Breast Ironing.
- A girl has an older sibling or cousin who has undergone Breast Ironing.
- If there are references to Breast Ironing in conversation, for example, a girl may tell other children about it.
- A girl may request help from a teacher or another adult if she is aware or suspects that she is at immediate risk.
- A girl from an affected community is withdrawn from personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) and/or sex and relationship education as her parents wish to keep her uninformed about her rights.
- One or both parents or elder family members consider Breast Ironing integral to their cultural identity.
- The family indicate that there are strong levels of influence held by elders who are involved in bringing up female children and support Breast Ironing.
- A girl/family has limited levels of integration within the UK community.
What are the signs that Breast Ironing has taken place?
Some indicators that a girl has undergone Breast Ironing include but are not limited to:
- Difficulty in lifting arms as the breast area will be tender to move and touch.
- Walking or sitting hunched over.
- Unusual behaviour after an absence from school or college including:
– Complex PTSD.
- Reluctance in undergoing normal medical examinations.
- Talking about pain or discomfort in their chest area.
- Fear of changing for physical activities due to scars showing or bandages being visible.
- Being withdrawn from physical activities.
- Some girls may ask for help, but may not be explicit about the problem due to embarrassment or fear.
Why is Breast Ironing practised?
Breast Ironing is intended to protect young girls from unwanted sexual advances or early marriage. In most cases, the abuser incorrectly thinks they are behaving in the best interests of the child.
They believe ironing or flattening the breasts will make the child less “womanly”. They hope this will protect the girl from harassment, rape, abduction and early forced marriage, all of which can significantly tarnish or dishonour a family’s social status or standing, and that it will help her to stay in education.
These mothers believe they must make their daughters less attractive to men to protect them.
However, despite the mothers having the best of intentions, this horrific practice will never solve the systemic problems they are hoping to solve such as violence against women and gender inequality.
Whilst the practice of Breast Ironing is at minimum, misguided, fears of early pregnancy, marriage, or rape are not unfounded. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 38% of children in Cameroon, a country where Breast Ironing is prevalent, are married by their 18th birthdays. More than a quarter of adolescent girls are mothers, and 20% of them drop out of school after getting pregnant.
Breast ironing is also motivated by longstanding traditional norms. Cultural ideals of femininity promote modesty, while female sexuality is often regarded as shameful and something that must be repressed, hidden and denied.
Moreover, chastity and virginity at marriage are considered as highly important elements in a girl’s personal and family honour. Breast growth and development in girls is regarded as intricately tied to their transition into womanhood and signifies the emergence of their sexuality.
Breast Ironing aims to uphold these cultural ideals about gender roles, social relations and appropriate sexual behaviours. It is an attempt to retain control over women’s bodies and sexuality.
Where is Breast Ironing Practised?
Whilst studies have found that Breast Ironing is practised in:
- Guinea Bissau.
- Ivory Coast – Côte d’Ivoire.
- South Africa.
It is most common in Cameroon. It is estimated that between 25% and 50% of girls in Cameroon are victims of Breast Ironing, affecting up to 3.8 million women across Cameroon alone.
The practice is also common in refugee camps, where women and girls have reported sexual harassment by host communities and other refugees. Female refugees and displaced people are at a high risk of sexual harassment and exploitation, with some women turning to sex work out of desperation, a practice known as “survival sex”.
The high rates of sexual harassment and exploitation in refugee camps can increase the practice of Breast Ironing, since perpetrators of the practice believe Breast Ironing deters sexual attacks and the possibilities of prostitution.
As we have also seen, it is a practice that is currently being performed in the UK and is highly likely to be taking place in other countries where the diaspora of African countries has settled.
What is the law around Breast Ironing?
In 2016, Jake Berry MP urged the government to consider making Breast Ironing a criminal offence to send out a message that the UK will not allow it to happen. He said that “about 1,000 girls in the UK were thought to be affected by the abhorrent practice”.
Mr Berry said that 15% of UK police forces had no awareness of Breast Ironing and 23% of local children’s services were not trained to deal with it, with 65% saying they would welcome more guidance. “If we fail to let them have the tools they require to identify and understand the victims of this crime, we will never be able to tackle it,” he told the House of Commons.
But although the Home Office stated it was “absolutely committed” to fighting Breast Ironing, it said that “certain professionals” might feel unable to take action because of “cultural sensitivities”.
The MP added, “My understanding is that there is currently no stand-alone crime of Breast Ironing in the UK, with police and prosecutors relying on the existing pool of criminal offences available to them. Just like with FGM, this is not an adequate protection for young women and girls in our country”.
The police have stated that they have fielded no allegations about Breast Ironing in the UK, but suspect that it is happening. Currently there is still no specific UK legislation outlawing the practice.
The police and the CPS rely on Child Abuse legislation such as:
These crimes are punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Responsible adults who aid and abet a girl, as the victim in Breast Ironing, will also be considered for investigation and prosecution.
Although this abuse often occurs in a family setting, the CPS is clear that a crime is committed when actual harm is caused to a girl, regardless of consent, stating that it is not possible to consent to serious assault.
Countries on the African continent where Breast Ironing is prevalent, have ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to prevent harmful traditional practices, including Breast Ironing; however, it is still not against the law in these countries either.
Breast Ironing appears to be a little known, little understood practice that is happening today to young women in the UK. The view that it is a “cultural practice” should not be an excuse for the police and other authorities to ignore it and to not prosecute those inflicting child abuse by performing or aiding and abetting Breast Ironing on their children.
Fortunately there are a few UK organisations such as Came Women and Girls Development Organisation (CAWOGIDO) who are currently supporting programmes targeting gender-based violence and sexual health with a big focus on Breast Ironing.
If you are concerned that a girl is at risk of Breast Ironing, you should make a referral to the local children’s services team.
If you are concerned that the girl is in immediate danger, contact the police by calling 999. If professionals are concerned a child may be at risk of, or suffering, significant harm, they should refer to their local safeguarding procedures.