What is breast ironing? This horrific process needs to stop
There are many practices across the world designed to control female sexuality, and breast ironing is just one of them.
The majority of us are aware of female genital mutilation (FGM). It's the process where the external parts of the female genitals are partially or entirely removed. But fewer people know about the process of breast ironing. And yes, it’s pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.
What is breast ironing?
Breast ironing involves adolescent and pre-pubescent girls have their budding breasts crushed with a hot stone or other heavy implements. This is done to flatten them or stunt their development. It is also occasionally carried out using hot leaves to massage the breasts. But more frequently, it involves tools such as grinding stones or spatulas, which are heated over a fire and pressed against their chest.
The heat melts away fat and stops breasts becoming more pronounced. However, there is another method. It's just as unpleasant and requires the girl's chest to be wrapped in tight bandages overnight. Sometimes. for as long as a year. This is highly uncomfortable, and requires more time, so it is the less popular option.
The UN estimates that 3.8 million girls have been subjected to breast ironing, with many more still at risk, and is most common in the central African nation of Cameroon, where it is believed to be practiced within all 200 of the country's ethnic groups.
That said, has also been reported in countries including Benin, Chad and Ivory Coast, among others. And although it may sound archaic, it's not dying out; breast ironing is even thought to be on the increase in Western countries, with over 1000 cases now having been reported in the UK.
Breast ironing is sometimes done to "protect" girls
Cameroonian journalist and women's rights advocate Chi Yvonne Leina speaks openly about her close call with breast ironing.
At the time, she refused to submit to it when pressured by her grandmother. She later founded founded Gender Danger, a grassroots women’s organisation that fights to end the practice.
In an article for the UN Women, she described witnessing her cousin have her breasts ironed:
"Grandma’s hut was locked. I heard another sound: it was Aline, groaning in pain! I peeped through a small hole on the wall of the hut. There was grandma, pressing Aline’s breast with her grinding stone. God! Why was she doing this? I got to understand why my beautiful cousin had changed completely; because grandma was 'fixing' her!"
Fixing, in this case, means suppressing the signs of puberty and womanhood; odd as it might sounds, all of this is undoubtedly done out of love and a desire to protect girls.
Often, the physical development of a girl's body is used as a signal that she is ready for sex, and breast ironing is intended to help to repel the sexual advances of men while the girls are still too young for marriage. The hope is that by removing signs of their sexuality, it will delay their relationships and ensure they stay in education, rather than falling pregnant.
Breast ironing can have severe psychological effects on young women
This, of course, underestimates the physical and psychological toll that this experience can have on young women. Although more research needs to be done on the health implications of breast ironing - something made difficult by the hidden nature of the practice - medics and campaigners have anecdotally linked breast ironing to the development of cysts, mastitis, and even cancer. Unsurprisingly, it has also been linked to burns and breast malformation.
In her piece, Chi Yvonne Leina speaks about the mental toll that breast ironing had on her cousin:
"Aline was always unhappy and moved with her arms covering her breasts. Her once glowing beauty was gradually fading away. She refused schooling later that year and eventually got pregnant a few years after,” adding in a separate interview that: "All I know is she became suddenly a shy person, which she wasn’t before."
Over the last few years, activists such as Leina have made concerted efforts to stem the practice, visiting schools and communities to discuss the issue.
But breast ironing is hard to stop. It is usually performed in secret by mothers or grandmothers and generally accepted as a cultural practice, meaning women are reluctant to speak out.
Society seems to be split on the future of the practice too; a survey by GIZ, a German state-owned development agency, showed that, of the Cameroonian women surveyed, 39 per cent opposed breast ironing, while 41 per cent supported it. The rest expressed little feeling either way.
The practice has gained traction in recent years
Worryingly, the practice has seems to have seen an upsurge once more, particularly in northern Cameroon and northern Nigeria as mothers seek to protect their daughters falling victim to soldiers of militant Islamic group Boko Haram.
Speaking to The Daily Beast, one mother explained that she felt justified in their actions: "If they [Boko Haram] don’t see her breast, they won’t think she has come of age."
Another added: "It wasn’t just us. Many women did it on their daughters for the same reason.” However, it’s not only in high-risk situations that it occurs. On Instagram, one mother even re-posted a photograph of the practice in progress, captioning it: “Shout out to all mothers out there doing their part to protect our girls from the evil world."