African child abuse tradition of breast-ironing on the rise in UK
An African practice of “ironing” a girl’s chest with a hot stone to delay breast formation is spreading in the UK, with anecdotal evidence of dozens of recent cases, a Guardian investigation has established.
There has been no systematic study or formal data collection exercise as yet, but Margaret Nyuydzewira, head of the diaspora group the Came Women and Girls Development Organisation (Cawogido), estimated that
at least 1,000 women and girls in the UK had been subjected to the intervention. A community activist, who did not wish to be named, said she was aware of 15-20 recent cases in Croydon alone.
Sometimes they do it once a week, or once every two weeks, depending on how it comes back,” she added. The perpetrators, usually mothers, consider it a traditional measure which protects girls from unwanted male attention, sexual harassment and rape.
“It’s usually done in the UK, not abroad like female genital mutilation (FGM),” she said, describing a practice whereby mothers, aunties or grandmothers use a hot stone to massage across the breast repeatedly in order to “break the tissue” and slow its growth.
British-Somali anti-FGM campaigner and psychotherapist Leyla Hussein said she has spoken to five women in her north London clinic who had been victims of breast-ironing.
“They were all British women, all British citizens,” Hussein said. One of the women said she became flat-chested as a result of the practice, said Hussein. “She kept saying: ‘I have a boy’s chest.’ But no one has ever questioned her about it. No one had physically checked her. This was in north London, just down the road,” said Hussein.
“I took care of a young 10-year-old girl who had an infection, which had been going on for a few years from ironing,” she said, describing a case from Broomfield hospital in Essex.
Mary Claire, a church minister in Wolverhampton, said she had spoken to four victims in Leeds, originally from west Africa. “You could see the marks,” she said.
Medical experts and victims regard it as child abuse which could lead to physical and psychological scars, infections, inability to breastfeed, deformities and breast cancer.
The United Nations describes it as one of five global under-reported crimes relating to gender-based violence.