Breast ironing / flattening – advice for practitioners

Professionals working with children and young people must be able to identify the signs and symptoms of girls who are at risk of or have undergone breast ironing or flattening . As with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), breast ironing or flattening is classified as physical abuse.

What is breast ironing  / flattening?
Breast flattening, also known as breast ironing, is the process during which young pubescent girls’ breasts are ironed, massaged, flattened and/or pounded down over a period of time (sometimes years) in order for the breasts to disappear or delay the development of the breasts entirely.

In some families, large stones, a hammer or spatula that have been heated over scorching coals can be used to compress the breast tissue. Other families may opt to use an elastic belt or binder to press the breasts so as to prevent them from growing.

Breast flattening usually starts with the first signs of puberty, which can be as young as nine years old and is usually carried out by female relatives under the ‘misguided intention’ of protecting her from rape and sexual harassment.

As well as extreme pain and psychological damage, the practice puts the young women at increased risk of developing cysts, infections and even cancer.

It should also be acknowledged that some adolescent girls and boys may choose to bind their breast using constrictive material due to gender transformation or identity, and this may also cause health problems.

National FGM Centre
The National FGM Centre is a partnership between Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association (LGA) to achieve a systems change in the provision of services for children and families affected by Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). In 2017, the Centre’s remit was extended to include Breast Ironing/Flattening and Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief.

The Centre’s website hosts an interactive knowledge hub which provides a ‘one-stop shop’ for quality assured national and international guidance, information and resources regarding FGM, Breast Flattening and Child Abuse Linked to Faith or Belief.

It helps to support the continued learning of professionals, the development of good practice, and the understanding of excellence in the delivery of services. Find out more at nationalfgmcentre.org.uk

Where does it happen?
According to UN estimates, up to 3.8 million girls worldwide are affected. Breast ironing is particularly widespread in the West African nations of Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Togo and Benin.

It is thought that about 1,000 girls in West African communities across the UK have been subjected to the practice, but the figure could be much higher.

Why is it not illegal?
There is no specific law banning breast ironing in the UK and no-one has ever been prosecuted for carrying out the practice. However, offenders can be prosecuted for a range of crimes, including common assault, child cruelty and grievous bodily harm.

Professionals may be reluctant to tackle the issue because of ‘cultural sensitivities’ – the words ‘culture’, ‘tradition’ or ‘religion’ might come up when trying to explain this harmful practice, but as in the case of female genital mutilation (FGM), breast ironing is a ritualised form of child abuse.

Policies and resources
The MSCB has adopted the GMSP procedures in relation to breast ironing and these can be found at greatermanchesterscb.proceduresonline.com

Tri.x have produced a useful policy briefing on breast ironing which can be found at www.trixonline.co.uk

See also our FGM and child abuse linked to faith or belief resources.

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