18 Apr 2014

Campaigners warn of ‘breast ironing’ in the UK

While attention is finally turning to FGM, campaigners warn that breast ironing, which involves placing hot objects on girls’ chests, is also happening in the UK. Channel 4 News speaks to one victim.

Breast ironing is a hidden form of abuse where young girls have their chests pressed with hot objects to disguise the onset of puberty and deter male attention. The idea driving this mutilation is that it could prevent pregnancy and rape, and is a practice rooted in Cameroon, often carried out by mothers.

But charities and victims have told Channel 4 News that breast ironing is happening here in the UK, among the West African diaspora and they say the UK authorities need to take action.

My dad kept going on and on about the fact my breasts were coming out: ‘men are going to be looking at her’ Carine

One victim, who does not want to be named, described to Channel 4 News how she was subjected to the custom as a young girl in Cameroon. “Carine”, not her real name, showed us scars on her breasts – one was significantly smaller than the other. But she says the greatest damage done to her self-esteem.

“I remember my dad kept going on and on about the fact my breasts were coming out: ‘men are going to be looking at her,’ and my mum thought it’s time for us to do it,” she said.

“They put the spatula on the fire… It’s like warm and you feel – it’s like body temperature, but a little bit warmer. You put it on the breast.”

While widespread in Cameroon, similar customs have been documented in Togo, Republic of Guinea, South Africa and Côte d’Ivoire. The UN estimates that some 3.8 million teenagers are affected.

It exposes girls to many health problems including tissue damage and cysts. It can even cause one or both breasts to disappear.

Dr Sian Morgan, a community paediatrician in Lewisham, has organised training around breast ironing for health professionals. She told Channel 4 News that she knows one doctor in London who has already seen a victim of the practice.

The charity, CAME Women’s and Girl’s Development Organisation (Cawogido) is working in Cameroon and the UK to tackle the issue of breast ironing.

The co-founder, Margaret Nyuydzewira, says that the authorities need to take action and work faster than they have in stopping female genital mutilation in the UK.

Video: ‘Carine’ speaks to Channel 4 News. Her voice is spoken by an actor

Extent of practice unknown

There have been no prosecutions related to breast ironing and there are no figures available for the number of teenage girls who might be affected. It is also unclear what might motivate people to pratice it here in the UK. One FGM campaigner told me she thought it is more likely to be connected to wider ritualistic abuse, rather than the fear of unwanted male attenion driving it in Cameroon.

However, The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) says that they too are concerned and are working with communities to encourage people to come forward to report the crime. Acpo’s Commander Mark Chisty told Channel 4 News:

“Breast ironing is something that we are accutely aware of, sensitive to, and it’s something that we’re working with communities to make sure, A – we educate it, but B – there’s also a very hard message that we will prosecute people who attempt to do it.”