Female genital mutilation (FGM) is rightly receiving a lot of attention right now (the UK recently had its first ever conviction for the crime, and MP Sir Christopher Chope triggered uproar last week for blocking a bill designed to protect potential victims). But FGM is far from the only method of barbaric gender-based violence happening in the UK in 2019.
New reports are drawing attention to the practice of "breast ironing". Dozens of girls (and potentially many more) are having their breasts "ironed" with hot stone to delay breast formation, a recent Guardian investigation found. While there are no official figures available, pre-teen girls across the UK – including London, Yorkshire, Essex and the West Midlands – are reported to have been subjected to the practice, according to community workers in these areas. Came Women and Girls Development Organisation (CAWOGIDO) estimates that at least 1,000 women and girls in the UK are victims.
The true figure is likely to be far higher. The United Nations 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).
Experts told Refinery29 that breast ironing is more common than you might think in the UK, and professionals often don't recognise the signs. "Breast ironing is a hidden form of child abuse," says Leethen Bartholomew, head of the National FGM Centre, run in partnership by Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association, adding that the organisation is "not particularly surprised" by recent reports of it happening.
Aneeta Prem, a human rights activist, author and founder of Freedom charity, says she's "not at all" surprised by the reports. "It’s [a] very secretive [form of abuse] and now being exposed by Freedom charity and others," adding that girls have reached out to tell her it’s happened to them.
What is it?
Breast ironing, or breast flattening, involves burning and pounding a young girl's breasts using hot objects, including stones and hammers, over a period of time (sometimes years), in an attempt to stop them from growing or reverse the process.
It usually starts with the onset of puberty and can result in serious health and developmental issues, says Bartholomew, which vary depending on the type of instrument used, the degree of force and the lack of aftercare. Physical effects can include tissue damage, infection, dissymmetry of the breasts, abscesses, cysts, itching, the discharge of milk, severe fever, and even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts, he adds. The impact on a victim's social and psychological wellbeing can also be insidious.
Why it's carried out
Breast ironing is often carried out by family members, often mothers and grandmothers, who believe they are "protecting" their young relatives from sexual harassment, rape, abduction and early forced marriage, and more, which they fear are more likely once girls reach puberty. "In practising communities, it is believed many boys and men believe girls whose breasts have grown are ready to have sex," Bartholomew explains. "Therefore elders – mothers, grandmothers, aunties, etc – believe that by suppressing a girl’s development of her breasts she will be protected."
It frequently takes place in Cameroon, central Africa, where four million girls are affected, according to a 2013 UN estimate, and has been reported in other African countries including Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Togo, Benin and Guinea, the UN says. CAWOGIDO is concerned the practice is now happening in the UK, and offers training for Cameroonian organisations working to protect girls from being abused.
Why is it underreported?
Much like FGM, breast ironing is often considered a "cultural practice" by public authorities who encounter it, whereas it should be seen for what it is: gender-based child abuse. Margaret Nyuydzewira, head of CAWOGIDO and a survivor of the practice herself, believes it isn't being taken seriously for this reason. "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."
Bartholomew told us: "It is a hidden form of child abuse, but often professionals do not recognise the signs a girl is at risk, or has undergone the practice," adding that the National FGM Centre is training professionals about breast ironing, FGM and other harmful practices. The young age of the victims and their relationship with the perpetrator also means they're unlikely to speak out, he says.
The signs that a girl or young woman is a victim of breast ironing include them being "withdrawn, depressed and self conscious," says Prem, along with the more obvious symptom of complaining about pain in her chest.
What's being done to stop it?
Education, training and awareness-raising may be key, but there's no specific law against breast ironing in the UK and no one has ever been prosecuted for carrying it out (remember, the UK's first FGM conviction only happened this month and FGM has been illegal since 1985). Perpetrators can, however, be prosecuted under laws relating to common assault, child cruelty and grievous bodily harm. A group of MPs called for it to be introduced as a criminal offence two years ago to little avail, and police and prosecuting authorities have been criticised (including by a leading QC) for not doing more to tackle it.
"Breast ironing is barbaric and where FGM was 30 years ago," adds Prem. "We have seen over 65,000 children and many said they have experienced breast ironing. It’s awful and disfigures girls. We need to stop it now. We need to save lives."