Breast ironing is the practice of flattening a young girl’s chest, often with hot stones or spatulas, to stop them from growing.
The UN reports that breast ironing affects 3.8 million girls around the world. Indeed, in Cameroon, 1 in 10 girls have reportedly undergone the harmful procedure, according to a GIZ study from 2011.
But it could be happening in the UK, too.
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A Guardian investigation has found dozens of cases based on anecdotal evidence all over Britain.
Although no formal studies have been completed, Margaret Nyuydzewira — head of the health diaspora group Came Women and Girls Development Organisation (Cawogido) and survivor of breast ironing herself — estimated that at least 1,000 girls could have been subjected to it.
“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.”
My months-long investigation into breast ironing performed on girls in the UK found anecdotal evidence of over 50 cases - including one mother who showed me the stone which she used on her 8-yr-old. https://t.co/ZXLT2vMLV2— Inna Lazareva (@InnaLaz) January 26, 2019
Parents will often force their daughters to undergo breast ironing in an attempt to protect them from sexual harassment and rape. Vice explains that it’s intended to postpone sexual relationships, so girls don’t drop out of school because of teen pregnancies.
But, like female genital mutilation (FGM), the consequences for health can be severe: infections, difficulty breastfeeding, and an increased likelihood of breast cancer and cysts.
The Guardian talked to a multitude of activists, including one who claimed to have seen 15-20 cases in Croydon, south London.
Read More: The Sad Reason Mothers in Cameroon Are 'Ironing' Their Daughters' Breasts
“It’s usually done in the UK, not abroad like female genital mutilation,” the anonymous source said. “Sometimes they do it once a week, or once every two weeks, depending on how it comes back.”
Another source described subjecting her own daughter to breast ironing while living in the English suburbs. She was released by police with just a caution. Over half of the perpetrators are the mothers of the child involved, the BBC reports.
“I took the stone, I warmed it, and then I started massaging [my daughter’s chest],” she told the Guardian. “And the stone was a little bit hot. When I started massaging, she said: ‘Mummy, it’s hot!’”
There have been previously been calls to make the practice illegal.
In 2016, Jake Berry MP urged the government to consider making breast ironing a criminal offence to send out a message that the UK won’t allow it to happen. But although the Home Office stated it was “absolutely committed” to fighting it, it said that “certain professionals” might feel unable to take action because of “cultural sensitivities.”
Some critics point to the law against FGM — although it’s been illegal in Britain since 1985, there has never been a successful conviction — to argue that it’s not legislation that’s needed, but education.
Re breast ironing, when are we’re going to stop blaming girls for being girls, and instead blame perverted men for their agency and parents for promoting this BS? pic.twitter.com/rv5Y5xnBIs— Wasiq (@WasiqUK) January 27, 2019
It’s difficult to extract data about breast ironing because, like FGM, it’s a “hidden crime” that is often conducted by families in secret. However, the Guardian investigation proves that personal stories of the practice do exist up and down the country — shining some light on an issue that many activists feel needs more public focus.
“If I knew it was happening, I would do something about it,” Met police inspector Allen Davis told the Guardian. “People have to recognise these practices for what they are: child abuse.”