Breast ironing, an African practice in which the developing breasts of a pubescent girl are branded with a stone, is spreading across African communities in the United Kingdom, the Guardian is reporting.
Over the decades, thousands of Africans have fled famine and civil war on the continent and made their way to the United Kingdom in search of a better life. However, some of the practices they brought from their homeland don’t square with U.K. culture and law. One such practice is breast ironing.
The procedure is intended to delay breast development and, in the process, “protect” girls from unwanted male attention and even rape. Usually performed by the mother, the process involves putting a hot stone to the breasts in order to scar them. The process is repeated as often as is “necessary,” says a community activist who asked not to be named.
“Sometimes they do it once a week, or once every two weeks, depending on how it comes back.”
One mother explained to police how she did it to her own daughter.
“I took the stone, I warmed it, and then I started massaging [my daughter’s chest]. And the stone was a little bit hot. When I started massaging, she said: ‘Mummy, it’s hot!'”
Human rights advocates say the tradition is misogynistic, abusive, painful, and doesn’t work. Further, it can lead to infections, scars, breast cancer, and difficulty breastfeeding later in life. Fortunately, the girl mentioned in the paragraph above suffered only minor bruising.
Social workers are taking notice. Unnamed workers from London, Yorkshire, Essex, and the West Midlands all told the Guardian that they’ve witnessed dozens of girls who have been subjected to the practice. In almost all cases, the families were referred to police, who merely talked to the family and “cautioned” them.
Though the number of reported cases of the practice is only a few dozen, community activist Margaret Nyuydzewira, head of the diaspora group the Came Women and Girls Development Organisation (Cawogido,) estimates the real number of girls in the U.K. subjected to the practice is closer to a thousand.
Inspector Allen Davis from the London Metropolitan Police said the practice should be treated as what it is: a crime.
“If I knew it was happening, I would do something about it. Prosecutions are really important,” he added. “People have to recognize these practices for what they are – child abuse.”
Meanwhile, the U.K. government says that it is committed to ending the practice, although how that will be carried out remains unclear.