Breast ironing (or flattening)
Breast ironing refers to the practice of massaging or pounding young girls’ breasts with heated objects to suppress or reverse the growth of breasts. A range of objects used may be used including stones, hammers and spatulas that have been heated. The practice has been documented primarily in Cameroon, but is also practiced in Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Togo, Benin, and Guinea. Cases have been found in the UK, particularly London and Birmingham.
Breast ironing is often performed by mothers or female relatives of victims. It is, wrongly, thought that performing breast ironing will protect their girls from rape, unwanted sexual advances, early sex, and pregnancies, all of which they fear would result from the appearance that a girl has reached the age of puberty. The practice is most likely to occur and the start of/during puberty.
Currently, awareness of and knowledge about the practice is at a low level amongst professionals including the police and education.
Potential school action
All staff should be aware of risk factors and warning signs for breast ironing as part of their duties around safeguarding.
The following have been identified in tri.x briefing 164 as risk factors and indicators:
- The girl generally believes that the practice is being carried out for her own good and she will often remain silent. Young pubescent girls usually aged between 9 – 15 years old and from practising communities are most at risk of breast ironing.
- Breast ironing is a well-kept secret between the young girl and her mother. Often the father remains completely unaware. Some indicators that a girl has undergone breast ironing are as follows
- Unusual behaviour after an absence from school or college including depression, anxiety, aggression, withdrawn etc
- Reluctance in undergoing normal medical examinations
- Some girls may ask for help, but may not be explicit about the problem due to embarrassment or fear
- Fear of changing for physical activities due to scars showing or bandages being visible
There is no specific law within the UK around breast ironing, however it is a form of physical abuse and if professionals are concerned a child may be at risk of or suffering significant harm they must refer to their Local Safeguarding Children’s Board Procedures: Solihull Local Safeguarding Children Board
A MASH referral may be necessary in order to safeguard the child/young person.
Culture and ethos
Schools should aim to create an “open environment” where pupils feel comfortable and safe to discuss the problems they are facing. Pupils need to know that they will be listened to and their concerns taken seriously.
Schools may wish to consider working towards the Unicef UK Rights Respecting Schools Award (RRSA). The award supports schools across the UK to embed children’s human rights in their ethos and culture. The award recognises achievement in putting the UN Convention on the Right of the Child (UNCRC) at the heart of a school’s practice to improve well-being and help all children and young people realise their potential.
Article 19 has particular pertinence to breast ironing and other safeguarding issues:
Governments must do all they can to ensure that children are protected from all forms of violence, abuse, neglect and bad treatment by their parents or anyone else who looks after them.
It is up to schools to decide exactly how they address breast ironing, taking account of the numbers of pupils from relevant communities. They can, however, create an ‘open’ and supportive environment by raising awareness through learning in sex and relationship education within PSHE.
Infant and primary schools: effective sex and relationship education within PSHE can help pupils keep themselves safe from harm through building their confidence to ask for help, learning that their body belongs to them and giving them the language to describe private parts of their body. The Sex Education Forum and PSHE Association have advice and guidance on effective teaching and learning in sex and relationship education and PSHE.
Resources to support teachers with educating children and young people about their rights and global citizenship have been produced by UNICEF. This includes assembly ideas, child-friendly leaflets summarising the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and posters illustrating particular articles of the Convention.
Updates and changes
These pages are updated regularly and should be used as the main source of information. Printed versions should be used with care as they can become out of date.