Breast flattening happens with belts, hot stones, hammers, spatulas and other disfiguring methods. (Photo: Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images)
The Undercover World Of Breast Mutilation
As FGM made numerous headlines, political campaigns and documentaries as well as viral petitions to end the damaging practice in the last couple of years, a slightly different form of bodily mutilation has come to the world's attention.
Breast ironing is the horrific practice seeing mostly mothers forcing their daughters to stunt their breast development by flattening their growing chests. A ritual common in African countries such as Cameroon, Nigeria and South Africa, the procedure is an attempt to stop girls hitting puberty to ward off development, male attention and possible sexual predators.
Methods of breast ironing include the use of hot stones, hammers or heated spatulas in order to disfigure developing chests. It's a shocking reality many girls as young as eight or nine are experiencing, and mothers – although under the impression they are doing something positive – are the biggest perpetrators.
Although the ritual is much more common and well-known in places like Cameroon, charities and victims are warning the procedure is a growing reality here in the UK.
That's why Ealing-based charity CAME Women's and Girl's Development Organization (Cawagido) is moving breast ironing to the forefront and attempting to raise awareness of this extremely harmful custom on our shores. Sadly the charity does not receive any funding and relies on volunteers to carry out their extensive support which has already come a long way since it was founded in 2008.
"If a girl has breasts, she is ready to have sex."
A UN report revealed the practice may be affecting more than 3.8 million girls and women around the world. And besides extreme pain, experts warn it may lead to developments of breast cancer as well as tissue damage, cysts and future trouble with breast feeding. Obviously emotional trauma can also last forever.
While the misguided intentions from girls' mothers is to protect them from men who may be under the impression that if a girl has breasts, she is ready to have sex, it's safe to say that the belief a girl is 'safer' away from her natural body is totally wrong.
Family members that carry out breast ironing on their girls do genuinely believe that delaying signs of puberty will prevent cases of rape, harassment and pregnancy which in turn will allow the girl more chances at continuing her education, however this is abuse which the UK must take action on, say campaigners.
Leyla Hussain, an FGM activist known for Channel 4 documentary The Cruel Cut, has been vocal about the gender-based violence of breast ironing, as well as genital mutilation of vulvas. Hussein met a woman who had undergone both FGM and breast ironing in the UK.
In a blog for Cosmopolitan, she wrote "abuse knows no time and place." She also delves into the fact cultural norms are no excuse for this practice:
"The words 'culture,' 'tradition' or 'religion' might come up when trying to explain this absurdly harmful practice, but as in the case of FGM, these words are only thinly veiled excuses.
"Breast ironing is just another way to control a woman's sexuality and perceived attractiveness. Breasts become a dangerous body part that must be removed in case they attract male attention, as if removing all signs of femininity from a girl's body could protect her from being raped.
"What an absurd world we live in when women's bodies are not considered safe in their natural state, and men are not considered responsible for controlling their own urges."
A a 2011 GIZ report found an extortionate one in every ten Cameroonian girls has been subjected to the disfiguring treatment. Hussein warns thousands in the UK may also be, or have been, at risk.
Cindy, who is currently 14 years old, spoke to French photographer Gildas Paré, who captured many who have been affected by breast ironing in stark portraits. Although she finds the process humiliating, she hopes wearing flattening bandages will help her future. Paré told Vice what she said:
"Every morning, before going to school, my mom makes me lift up my top so she can make sure I haven't taken my bandage off. It's been two years now and she still checks it on a daily basis. It's humiliating. I'd like her to stop. When I grow up, I want to be a lawyer or play piano. I hope that wearing this bandage will help me to continue my education."
The ritual has been listed by the UN as one of five under-reported crimes involving sexual violence. Now is the time to do something, because no one should have to choose education or health. Everyone deserves both.
You can help Cawagido by volunteering with them in London or Cameroon to make sure breast ironing, as well as other forms of violence against women, are put to bed.
By Lydia Morrish, published on 29/10/2015