Previously confined to some African countries, a harmful practice that aims to delays girls’ breast formation is now spreading to the UK.
Breast ironing, or breast flattening, involves the use of heated objects such as stones and hammers to pound and massage pubescent girls’ breasts so that they flatten and stop growing. Sometimes, girls’ breasts are also wrapped in elastic belts or binders. Girls as young as nine are typically subjected to the practice daily or weekly for extended periods of time.
Usually carried out by female relatives, breast ironing is seen as a measure to protect girls from male predation, sexual harassment and early pregnancies that could bring shame to the family and result in stigmatisation. In some instances, it is also done to prevent early marriages and encourage girls to pursue their education.
However, activists and doctors claim the practice is futile, harmful and it is a violation of human rights. The consequences on the victim’s health – both physical and mental – are dire and often irreversible. Often imposed on young girls without their consent, the United Nations named it as one of five under-reported crimes related to gender-based violence, adding that nearly 4 million girls worldwide are subjected to it. The practice is believed to have been originated in Cameroon, where at least half of the female population undergoes it, according to the UN.
At least 1,000 cases in the UK
In recent years, cases of breast ironing have surfaced in the UK, with activists warning at least 1,000 people have been subjected to it.
In 2016, Conservative MP for Rossendale & Darwen, Jake Berry, raised the alarm and claimed that at least a quarter of children’s service departments in the UK were not trained to deal with it.
The then Home Office minister Karen Bradley said some people could feel reticent to put a halt to such practices due to cultural sensitivities, but added that the UK government was “absolutely committed” to ending it.
This January, an investigation by the Guardian revealed that health workers had dealt with dozens of breast ironing cases involving pre-teen girls from the African diaspora. An unnamed mother was also quoted as saying that she had used a hot stone to massage her daughter’s breasts. The girl eventually developed bruising and the woman was questioned by the police and subsequently released with a caution.
According to activist Margaret Nyuydzewira, who herself underwent the practice when she lived in Cameroon as a child, breast ironing is spreading as members of the African diaspora bring their cultures to hosting countries.
“The British people are so polite in the sense that when they see something like that, they think of cultural sensitivities,” she told the Guardian. “But if it’s a cultural practice that is harming children … any harm that is done to a little girl, whether in public or in secrecy, that person should be held accountable.”
Nyuydzewira co-founded the UK-based CAWOGIDO, an organisation that aims to improve the well-being of women and girls from disadvantaged communities.
At present, there are neither specific laws within the UK on breast ironing, nor extensive data available on the cases believed to have occurred on British soil.
“There is some evidence through individual disclosures that it is occurring in the UK, primarily in diaspora communities and by mothers and female relatives who were subject to the practice themselves,” Meg Fassam-Wright, National Lead at the UK-based National FGM Centre, told WIB. The centre aims to protect people from female genital mutilation and other harmful practices.
“Unlike FGM where there is some evidence that it is occurring to girls when they travel overseas to visit family members during holiday periods, breast ironing requires the practice to continue over an extended period of time to be effective and this will entail the ‘ironing’ continuing in this country, even if started in the girl’s country of origin,” Fassam-Wright explained.
Painful and damaging
Breast ironing is very painful and can cause tissue damage, deformities and even cancer. Other effects include high fever, abscesses and cysts, breast pimples, itching, milk infection and the complete disappearance of the breasts.
“Saying that breasts are destroyed is an understatement. Adolescents are traumatised and mutilated. This is seriously damaging not only to their physical integrity but also to their social and psychological well-being”, asserts Nyuydzewira, citing as examples depression and a deep sense of shame. Additionally, CAWOGIDO believes the practice often proves futile against prevention of pre-marital sexual activity.
“The psychological impact of such an act being carried out by the girl’s mother or other trusted female relative adds another dimension to the potentially traumatic consequences of this practice,” Fassam-Wright explains.
“A well-kept secret” – The need to educate communities
Breast ironing is deeply embedded in the culture of some communities. It often goes unreported, not being seen as a crime, which prevents UK authorities from understanding the real extent of the practice.
“Breast ironing is a well-kept secret between the young girl and her mother. Often the father remains completely unaware,” according to CAWOGIDO. “The girl believes that what her mother is doing is for her own good and she keeps silent. This silence perpetuates the phenomenon and all of its consequences.”
Fassam-Wright believes that improving awareness of the practice, educating communities about health consequences, and training the police and professionals in schools and other children’s services are necessary to put an end to it.
“Alongside other abusive harmful practices, breast ironing/flattening is driven by patriarchy and a wish to have complete control over the sexuality of women and girls,” she said.
“Harmful practices such as breast ironing are ‘complex issues to solve’, often with deep-seated roots in family and cultural traditions. Changing practices which go back generations and are embedded in social and personal relations require changes in attitudes and behaviour,” she concluded.