30th June 2016

This week, some members of the International Family department attended an informative training session with Susan Mansaray on the abusive practice of breast ironing.

Breast Ironing
Susan Mansaray

Susan is a Sierra Leonean journalist and female genital mutilation campaigner. She was granted asylum in the United Kingdom after she spoke out against the government about abusive practices affecting women in Sierra Leone. Susan has since founded Purple Rose, a community organisation set up to assist BME women through training and working with health professionals.

What is breast ironing?

Breast ironing (and breast flattening) is the practice of pounding or massaging pubescent girls’ breasts with heated stones and hammers, to flatten them and stop them developing. Alternatively, the breasts may be bound with elastic bands. Breast ironing is therefore a form of mutilation. Girls are typically subject to the practice between the ages of 8 and 16.

Breast ironing is extremely painful and often causes long term physical and psychological damage for survivors.

Why is breast ironing practiced?

Women often carry out breast ironing on their daughters and female family members on the mistaken belief that they are ‘protecting’ them. By preventing young girls’ breasts developing, they are thought to discourage unwanted male attention and therefore be at a lower risk of engaging in pre-marital sex and falling pregnant. Further, as there is no pressure for these young girls to marry, they are able to stay in education longer.

Susan was keen to highlight that there are no religious grounds for carrying out breast ironing. Indeed, it is simply a form of child abuse which has no place in any culture.

Where is breast ironing being practiced?

Whilst breast ironing first emerged in Cameroon it is also prevalent in other parts of Africa including Benin, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Togo, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

In the UK there have been 1,000 reported cases of young girls being subjected to breast ironing. These cases have mainly been from the Birmingham and London areas.

Many professionals in the UK still feel ill-equipped for identifying risks and supporting victims of this abuse.  65% of police and children’s services said they would welcome more guidance in this area.

Is breast ironing illegal in the UK?

Unlike FGM, there is no specific law in the UK criminalising breast ironing. Recently, Conservative MP Jake Berry called for breast ironing to be made a criminal offence in the UK. He said that just as in the case of FGM, culture, religion and tradition were just a ‘thinly veiled excuse for a ritualised form of child abuse’. He added that it had ‘no place in any society’.

What can I do if I am at risk of breast ironing?

If you believe that you or someone you know is at risk of breast ironing, you should notify the police and/or social services. You may also wish to contact a solicitor to find out about any action you can take to protect yourself. Ben Hoare Bell’s international family department specialise in advising BME women.