BREAST ironing – the barbaric pounding of young girls’ chests with hot objects to “protect” them from rape and sexual harassment – now affects 3.8million women around the world, according to the United Nations (UN).
The brutal custom uses large stones and a hammer or spatula that has been heated over scorching coals to compress the breast tissue of girls as young as 10 years old.
The mutilation is a traditional practice from Cameroon designed to make teenage girls look less “womanly” to deter unwanted male attention, pregnancy and rape.
Breast ironing is widespread 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.
The mother often warrants the ritual removing signs of puberty so her daughter can pursue education for longer rather than being regarded as “ready for marriage”.
Magdalena Randall-Schab, from the UK National Committee for UN Women, said: “These violent acts are not only perpetrated by men on women, but by older generations of women on young girls.
“The issues therefore are quite complex as we are dealing with deep-seated cultural beliefs, but there is a need to help people to see that however well-intentioned they may believe their acts to be, they are acts of violence.”
Much like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), breast-ironing has been identified by the UN as one of five under-reported crime relating to gender-based violence.
As well as inflicting excruciating pain, the cruel practice exposes girls to health problems including abscesses, cysts, infection tissue damage and even the disappearance of one or both breasts.
Rather than using barbaric tools such as stones and hammers, rich families opt to use an elastic belt to press the small paps the prevent them from growing.
Experts believe that the custom is being practiced amongst the several thousand Cameroonians now living in the UK.
London-based charity Women’s and Girl’s Development Organisation (Cawogido) works with the police, social services, hospitals and schools to raise awareness of breast ironing in the UK and Cameroon.
The charity’s 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.”
Margaret Nyuydzewira, co-founder and chair of Cawogido, said: “Breast ironing is a practice that happens in the privacy of people’s homes so it’s hard to see who is doing it.
“I am sure it is happening here, but people are not willing to talk about it. It’s like female genital mutilation: you know it’s happening but you’re not going to see it.”
So far there have been no prosecutions relating to breast ironing in the UK.