The terrifying rise of breast ironing: Barbaric ritual sees young girls having their chests ‘flattened’ with hot stones to disguise puberty
Breast ironing – the brutal flattening of a young girl’s developing chest to ‘protect her from rape and sexual harassment’ – now affects 3.8 million women around the world, according to a UN report.
The process uses large stones, a hammer or a spatula that has been heated over hot coals to compress or mutilate the breast tissue and make the adolescent look less ‘womanly’.
It is a widespread practice in Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa with the girl’s mother being the abuser in 58 per cent of cases, according to the Department of Public Health Services.
Rich families in Cameroon make young girls wear a wide belt, which presses the small paps in the breast and prevents them from growing
The rationale is to prevent girls from developing breasts between 11 and 15 years old in the belief that a flat childlike appearance will discourage unwanted male attention and premarital pregnancy.
The mother often warrants the ritual, removing signs of puberty, so her daughter can pursue education for longer rather than being seen as ‘ready for marriage’
However, much like FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), breast ironing is widely considered to be just another form of hidden abuse.
Writer Leyla Hussein told Cosmopolitan: ‘Destroying a woman’s or girl’s breasts in this way can take anything from a couple of days to a few weeks.
Large stones, a hammer or a spatula that has been heated over hot coals, is used to compress or mutilate the breast tissue and make the adolescent look less ‘womanly’
A young girl in Cameroon is pictured having her breast ‘ironed’ by her mother in an effort to stop them growing
‘The words “culture”, “tradition” or “religion” might come up when trying to explain this absurdly harmful practice, but as in the case of FGM, these words are only thinly veiled excuses.’
She underwent FGM for her ‘safety’ and believes it is ‘absurd’ that women’s bodies are not ‘considered safe in their natural states’.
London-based charity Women’s and Girl’s Development Organisation (Cawogido) works with the police, social services, health and schools to raise awareness of breast ironing in the UK and Cameroon.
Their website states: ‘Breast ironing is a well-kept secret between the young girl and her mother. Often the father remains completely unaware.
‘The girl believes that what her mother is doing is for her own good and she keeps silent. This silence perpetuates the phenomenon and all of its consequences.’
Jeanne Bella, 27, was subjected to breast ironing when she was just ten in the hope that her breasts would ‘disappear’
Women have grouped together and tried to intervene with the message that breasts are created by God and ironing them is dangerous
While also suppressing development, breast ironing also exposes girls to numerous health problems such as cancer, abscesses, itching, and discharge of milk, infection and dissymmetry of the breasts.
Girls are also likely to experience cysts, breast infections, severe fever, tissue damage and even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts.
It is also believed by many to be futile when it comes to deterring sexual activity.
Rather than using stones or torturous implements such as hammers, rich families prefer to use an elastic belt to press the small paps to prevent them from growing.
While awareness of FGM is at an all time high in the UK, campaigners warn that there are still many other forms of sexual violence being used against women around the world.
So far there have been no prosecutions relating to breast ironing in the UK but as awareness increases, there is more pressure on governments to take action.
The charity added: ‘Adolescents are traumatised, mutilated. This is a serious damage not only on their physical integrity, but also on their social and psychological well being. And we must stop it.’
YOUNG GIRLS IN CAMEROON REVEAL THE HORROR OF BREAST IRONING
VICE France and photographer Gildas Paré asked young girls to speak out about how the tradition affected them psychologically.
Emmanuelle, 23 years old
‘My cousin raped me when I was 13 and I ended up giving birth to his child. I needed to produce milk but I no longer had breasts. We tried to use driver ants. When they sting you, your breasts inflate and it’s supposed to encourage milk production. I’ve had three children and, despite the ants, I haven’t been able to breastfeed any of them.’
Gaëlle, 26 years old
‘My breasts grew really fast. Like really, really fast. I was so ashamed. I wanted to hide them. People on the street would scream at me about my boobs. By my twenties, my breasts started to sag like those of a 50-year-old woman. I’m reluctant to undress in front of people. Sometimes, I keep my top on when I have sex with my boyfriend. I really resent my mother.’
Manuella, nine years old
‘Sometimes, I can’t breathe because the bandage is so tight. It scares me. I’ve had it on for a year. It’s really hot, so I get spots everywhere underneath it. I don’t understand why my mom does this.’