Young girls around world suffering from breast ironing abuse

UK officials push for awareness

If you’ve never heard of breast ironing, you should know it’s as bad, if not worse, than it sounds, and it’s happening to young girls around the world. It's not a new practice, but it has just recently been recognized by the United Kingdom government as a form of child abuse.

What is breast ironing?

Breast ironing, which originates from West Africa, involves ironing a young girl’s chest with hot objects in order to delay the growth of her breasts, according to the BBC. In many cases, a girl will also be made to wear an extremely tight strap around her chest to suppress the growth of the breasts even more.

The practice can lead to tissue damage, abcesses, cysts, fever, infection and itching.

It can go on for months.

In fact, the United Nations estimates there could be up to 3.8 million girls around the world who have been exposed to breast ironing.

It has been documented as happening in African countries such as Cameroon, Chad, Benin, Guinea-Bissau and Togo, but the CAME Women and Girls Development Organization, which aims to improve the health and wellbeing of a variety of people from disadvantaged communities, is concerned breast ironing could be affecting at least 1,000 girls and women in the U.K.

You might ask why anyone would do this.

Cases of abuse

Margaret, one woman who suffered the form of abuse as a child, explained it’s not done with bad intentions. Instead, mothers believe they are protecting their daughters from sexual abuse, rape or getting unwanted attention from boys at too young an age.

A woman named Comfort told the BBC she still remembers running from her sister, who allegedly abused her by doing breast ironing on her when Comfort was 9.

“I remember screaming a lot,” Comfort said. “She’d say, ‘Get on the floor,’ and then she would rub the stone on my chest. Someone got hold of me and they just held me while she did it … She was saying to me, ‘Your breasts shouldn’t be growing at this time. You’re too young.’ When I think about it, I can literally still feel the pain.”

Margaret now runs a charity in London to help young girls who have been through breast ironing.

Impacts of breast ironing

“We have seen girls who have not developed breasts. We have seen girls who have difficulties breastfeeding because the breast milk is not flowing. We have seen girls who have developed cancer,” Margaret said.

Psychotherapist Leyla Hussein said the psychological impacts breast ironing have on a girl are far-reaching: post-traumatic stress, severe depression, body dysmorphia. She said a lot of the victims will struggle in relationships.

“What they’ve experienced is not a traditional practice … it’s actually violence,” Hussein said.

Stopping the abuse

The violence is still happening so frequently that British politician and former lawyer Nicky Morgan is trying to bring awareness so that teachers can identify when the abuse is happening to their students. Even though it has recently been recognized as a form of abuse, there is still no specific law banning it in the U.K.

Morgan said it should be “tackled, addressed, talked about and stopped,” and that those who work with girls and young women have a very important role to play.

“It’s going to be essential for schools, teachers, school nurses, family members, friends of the girls involved to blow the whistle when they know that such things have occurred,” said Lord Alex Carlile, who is a British barrister and crossbench member of the House of Lords. “It’s purposeless, it’s violent, it’s crude, it’s disgusting and it’s a crime.”

Now that breast ironing has been labeled a form of abuse, breast ironing victims and witnesses are being urged to come forward.

“When you don’t talk about something that seems so secretive, it just eats away in you. It just does,” Comfort said. 

A former gynecological nurse, Angie Marriot, told the BBC the true scale of breast ironing has been concealed because of underreporting, and women are afraid to speak out because they fear they could be ousted from their communities.

“To say the least, it’s an abuse. It hurts. It dehumanizes you,” Marriot said. “You are not a human being.”