A Guardian investigation in January revealed dozens of cases of breast ironing all over the UK.
Although not supported by any formal study, it was backed by survivor and expert Margaret Nyuydzewira, who estimated that at least 1,000 girls and women had been affected by the practice in Britain.
But there’s still a distinct lack of awareness that the problem exists — and leading figures are now calling for the issue to be formally addressed within the school curriculum.
Breast ironing is the practice of flattening a young girl’s chest with hot stones or spatulas to stop them from growing.
Parents, often mothers, force daughters to undergo the practice under the “misguided intention” it makes them less sexually appealing to men, according to the UN — and therefore protects them from rape and sexual abuse.
'My mum ironed my breasts aged 13'— Victoria Derbyshire (@VictoriaLIVE) March 26, 2019
Girls in the UK are being subjected to breast ironing - placing hot objects on their chest to stop growth.
Now there are calls for awareness to be taught in schools: https://t.co/33zLVAbH0xpic.twitter.com/7t3KoQGptk
The UK’s Department of Education announced on Feb. 25 that the new school curriculum from 2020 will include awareness on issues like female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriage, and “honour-based” abuse.
It’s part of rejuvenated sexual education classes that means all pupils aged 11 and over will learn about how the law prosecutes offenders, and how people can get support on issues such as these.
Kiri Tunks — the joint president of the National Education Union — has now argued that the changed curriculum should include breast ironing and be "under review as different areas of practice, custom, or abuse come to light".
She wants the issue to be confronted directly so that teachers, especially those working in physical education, can notice the early warning signs. Likewise, anybody who works with girls and young women must be able to help provide guidance, she said.
Conservative MP Nicky Morgan agreed, stating that teachers have a “very important role to play.”
#nofgm@vicderbyshire I have always talked about #breastIroning both the root of it is to do with patriarchy society. FGM is to preserve virginity and breastironing to deter men desiring the girl. There is no escape. Our precious body parts are deemed as the problem— hibo wardere (@HiboWardere) March 26, 2019
One survivor told the Victoria Derbyshire show that her mother subjected her to the practice for months after finding out she was gay aged 13.
"According to her, maybe I was attractive because of my breasts, so if she can iron them and I'm flat, then maybe I'll be ugly and no one will admire me,” the anonymous woman told the BBC.
Years later, she was forced to marry — and after giving birth she realised the consequences that treatment had on her health.
"When it comes to breastfeeding, it's so strenuous, like there's a knot inside," she added. "It seemed like maybe some of the nerves were destroyed.”
After the Guardian investigation, the UK Home Office pledged to crack down on the practice with a parliamentary statement promising to prosecute offenders under assault laws.
However, breast ironing is not a specific offence in UK law — unlike FGM, which has been illegal in some form in Britain since 1985.
The UN reports that breast ironing affects 3.8 million girls around the world. In Cameroon, one in 10 girls have undergone the harmful procedure, according to a 2011 a study from GIZ, a German development organisation.
Like FGM, breast ironing is widely underreported — often described as a “hidden crime” carried out by families in secret.