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Safeguarding – Breast ironing and flattening

CMS Vocational Training Hadyn Luke posted this on Monday 8th of July 2019 Hadyn Luke 08/07/2019


Safeguarding – Breast ironing and flattening

Breast ironing – also known as breast flattening – is a form of child abuse that is now recognised to occur in the UK.

Usually performed to hide the signs that a girl has reached puberty, it has many potential harmful effects, both medical and psychological.

How is breast ironing and flattening carried out?

As a child reaches the age of puberty – which can be as early as age nine up to the mid-teens – she is restrained while her mother or another (usually female) family member carries out the breast ironing.

Common implements employed to carry out breast ironing are grinding stones and pestles, wooden tools, elastic belts, cloth and foodstuffs (e.g. coconut shells). These are heated either in a fire or in boiling water before being pressed, massaged or pounded into the child’s breasts. This is often followed by binding or otherwise restricting the breasts.

Breast flattening is not a one-off occurrence: it’s often carried out once or more a day for a protracted length of time.

Why is it practiced?

Breast ironing is aimed at hiding signs that a girl is maturing into a woman. It is carried out in order to avoid sexual interest from men.

The reasons behind breast ironing may be any or all of the following:

  • To protect the adolescent girl from sexual harassment, assault and rape
  • To avoid her being married at a young age
  • To make it less likely that she will have sex before marriage and an unwanted pregnancy

While the process itself is harmful, the perpetrators may believe they are acting from the right motives, for example, a mother trying to ensure that her daughter can continue with her education rather than being forced into marriage while still young.

What harm is caused by breast ironing?

The child will experience severe pain each time she undergoes breast flattening. The practice will cause tissue damage and malformation of her breasts that is likely to be long term and, in some cases, prevents the breasts developing entirely.

In addition, she can be left with burns and scars. Breast ironing can cause abscesses, mastitis and serious infections, and there are concerns that it might lead to breast cancer.

As a result of breast flattening, the child can also develop mental health issues such as PTSD, anxiety and depression, which can last into adulthood and indeed remain with her for life.

Where is breast ironing and flattening carried out?

The practice of breast ironing has been a tradition for many years in some African countries. It is particularly common in Cameroon and also seen in other West African countries, such as Benin, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Nigeria and Togo. It is also recognised to take place in Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe, and may be more widespread as it often goes unreported.

Because it is carried out in secret, it’s difficult to put a figure on the number of children affected by breast flattening, both here and abroad. However, breast ironing has been recognised as an issue within certain communities in the UK. It’s possible that concerns over cultural sensitivities might stop some people responsible for Safeguarding from discussing the issue, especially as there is currently no specific law that mentions breast ironing.

What warning signs should Safeguarding professionals look for?

While some girls may report this issue to a teacher or medical professional, those responsible for safeguarding should look out for other signs.

In some cases, it may be known that a child has relatives who support the practice or have undergone breast ironing themselves. Other signs include displaying embarrassment about her body, not wanting to change in front of others, mentioning pain in her breasts, reluctance to have a medical examination, being kept out of physical education or Sex and Relationship Education classes.

What is being done about it?

At the moment this form of abuse can be subject to laws on child cruelty or assault, and comes under Safeguarding reporting and procedures. However, many professionals feel that wider campaigning and more specific legislation would help to uncover examples of the practice and protect young girls at risk of breast flattening.

Came Women and Girls Development Organisation (CAWOGIDO) has recently been campaigning in Ealing against the practice of breast ironing, alongside other gender-based violence such as FGM.

Any concerns should be referred to local children’s services, unless the child is in immediate danger, in which case the police should be contacted on 999. If a child has been taken out of the country, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can be contacted on: 020 7008 1500.

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