Cultural relativism has a boundary, and any practice that inflicts cruelty on a child crosses that line. In a landmark ruling, the UK has seen its first conviction for the crime of female genital mutilation (FGM). In February of this year, a 37-years-old Ugandan woman was found guilty of mutilating her three-year-old daughter’s private parts. And while this trial, no doubt, paves the way for justice for victims, another form of FGM lurks in the shadows – one just as sadistic, but less spoken about.
In what the UN describes as one of five “forgotten crimes against women”, breast ironing is a practice rooted in African tradition where girls, typically between the ages of 8-16, have their breasts wilfully damaged. It was popularised due to the desire to protect girls from unwanted male attention or sexual advances, in countries where rape and underage marriages are prevalent.
Pubescent girls have their chest pounded with hard objects such as hot irons, heated stones, spatulas, and hammers, in the hopes of postponing or preventing the development of breasts. The flattening is primarily conducted by their mothers or possibly, with the aid of a healer. The children are left with indelible emotional, mental, and physical scars, which never quite go away.
The UN estimates that up to 3.8 million girls across the globe are victims of this brutality. It is particularly rife in West African countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Togo, Benin, and Cameroon. In Cameroon alone, up to 50 per cent of young girls endure breast ironing on a daily basis.
Aneeta Prem, a magistrate who inspired change as a human rights campaigner, and reverence for being named one of London’s most influential people, founded Freedom Charity. The organisation has fought against forced marriages, FGM, and honour-based crimes for almost a decade.
“No one knows about breast ironing or how widespread it is – which is shocking,” she explained. “As a charity, we have spoken to over 65,000 children in the UK and in doing so, a number of girls have told me that they have gone through breast pummelling.”
It is not a violation that is isolated to dusty, remote areas in some African landscape. Stemming from a culture where private matters are closely guarded, such matters are rarely discussed in public. As such, it has become deeply entrenched in a flawed belief system, which has found its way to Western countries.
“These girls are not being taken abroad to have this done. It is happening to them in their own homes – in the UK and all across Europe.
“The reason it continues in Western countries is because it is never discussed. They think that everyone else is doing it since they come from a culture where people aren’t talking about it at all.
“A mother told me it is done to stop the breasts from growing to keep the girls safe and to not attract male attention.”
A blatant disregard for the sanctity of childhood, girls and women are left with lifelong ailments: burns, disfiguration, agony, cysts, breast cancer, reduced functionalities such breastfeeding or sexual pleasures, low self-esteem, and psychological damage.
“How would girls know it is wrong if no one speaks about it?” Prem added.
“There is a lot of coverage on female genital mutilation, which became more well-known about twenty years ago, so we are playing catch up. And to date, very little is being said about breast ironing.
“Our charity has an international symbol, which is a red triangle with a heart in it, and we hope people might use it to raise awareness. They can even buy the badge because it creates a talking point. When anyone asks what it means, they will be able to explain and spread the word.”
One victim, who went to Freedom, spoke of the distress of being an 11-year-old girl whose mother pounded her chest daily. Berated for developing breasts, her mother would tell her that she was dirty and that her breasts were disgusting. The change in her mother’s demeanour was immediate; the girl was routinely being punished for reaching puberty and supposedly attracting men.
As an adult currently residing in the UK, she was stunned to discover that the tradition was not normal. Such was the extent of the horrific scarring and deformity, that she became fearful of having breast cancer. After giving birth, she soon realised that she could not breastfeed any of her children. It came as a further shock to her to learn that, in fact, most women are able to breastfeed.
In the far reaches of Africa, being unable to breastfeed can have devastating ramifications since feeding bottles and milk is not often readily available. And when they are, they can be quite costly and therefore, unaffordable. To combat this, driver ants are used to sting the breasts; the myth is that the venom will act as a stimulus for milk production.
Emmanuelle, a 23-years-old victim told Vice: “She was my mum, so I had to obey when she called for me. Even if I ran, she’d catch me; when I went to bed, she’d grab me; when I was washing myself, she’d get me and start massaging. She’d find a way, no matter what. I could cry all I want, but she would still do it. It felt like she was stabbing something into my chest. She’s dead now. I never really understood what she was thinking – if she thought she was helping me or punishing me. My cousin raped me when I was 13 and I ended up giving birth to his child. I needed to produce milk but I no longer had breasts. We tried to use driver ants. When they sting you, your breasts inflate and it’s supposed to encourage milk production. I’ve had three children and, despite the ants, I haven’t been able to breastfeed any of them.”
Cultural sensitivity must be dispelled. This dated custom should be recognised for what it is – it surpasses just being violence against women. It is child abuse of the wickedest kind. And it needs to be abolished. There are currently no laws in the UK – or anywhere else in the world – that prohibits breast ironing.