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Breast Ironing and Honour-Based Violence

Breast Ironing

Breast ironing is one of five UN defined ‘forgotten crimes against women’. It is a practice whereby the breasts of girls typically aged 8-16 are pounded using tools such as spatulas, grinding stones, hot stones, and hammers to delay the appearance of puberty.

Breast ironing is often carried out by the girl’s mother with the belief that she is:

  • Protecting her daughter from sexual harassment and / or rape
  • Preventing the risk of early pregnancy by “removing” signs of puberty
  • Preventing her daughter from being forced into marriage, so she will have the opportunity to continue with her education

Breast ironing is a cultural custom originating in Cameroon, where up to 24% of girls are believed to have experienced it. It is also practiced in other nations such as: Ginea-Bissau, Chad, Togo, Benin, Guinea.

However, there are indications that the tradition has now spread to Central and West African Diaspora living within the UK.

  • Around 1,000 9–15 year old girls in the UK are currently thought to be at risk of breast ironing
  • It is currently unknown how many girls are at risk from breast ironing in Hampshire
  • According to a UN report, 58% of perpetrators are the victims’ own mothers

Breast ironing is often a well-kept secret between the girl and her mother. This can make it difficult for professionals to identify. Care must be taken to navigate the deep-seated cultural belief and familial sensitivity of this practice. Many girls will not disclose that they are a victim of breast ironing for fear that their mother will get into trouble; or they believe it is being done for their own good.

Some signs that a girl is at risk from breast ironing include:

  • Unusual behaviour after an absence from school or college including depression, anxiety, aggression, becoming withdrawn
  • Reluctance in undergoing 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

Like other forms of FGM, breast ironing is an extremely painful process for the victim. Contrary to the beliefs of its proponents, breast ironing does not decrease the likelihood of its victims experiencing sexual violence or becoming sexually active. Many Cameroonian men have been unaware that the practice exists until recently, due to the growth in campaigns to tackle the issue.

The process of breast ironing combined with insufficient aftercare leaves young girls exposed to significant health risks, such as:

  • Cysts and lesions
  • Breast cancer
  • An inability to produce breast milk
  • Complete or partial eradication of single or both breasts

There is currently no known research on the effects on the psychological wellbeing of victims.

The practice of breast ironing is not explicitly covered under legislation. However, it is understood by the Government to be physical abuse.

If you are concerned that a child you know is at risk of breast ironing:

  • In an emergency contact the Police
  • Or contact Children’s Services on 0300 555 1384

Honour Based Violence

Honour-based violence (HBV) is the term used to refer to a collection of practices used predominantly to control the behaviour of women and girls within families or other social groups in order to protect supposed cultural and religious beliefs, values and social norms in the name of ‘honour’.

For example, HBV may be committed against people who:

  • Become involved with a boyfriend or girlfriend from a different culture, religion or caste;
  • Want to escape an arranged or forced marriage
  • Have adopted Westernised dress or take part in activities, which may not be considered traditional within a particular culture

Women and girls are the most common victims of HBV. However, it can also affect men and boys. Crimes committed in the name of honour may include: assaults, disfigurement, versions of sati (burning), sexual assault and rape, forced marriage, dowry abuse, female genital mutilation, kidnap, false imprisonment, stalking.

In the most extreme cases, people are killed because their actions are thought to be dishonourable. Honour based crime may not involve violence. It can also include:

  • Psychological abuse
  • Written or verbal threats
  • Abusive phone calls, emails and messages

Victims may also be ‘cast out’ by their family and community with very little support. This is high risk those who have no access to any money or financial support. Culture teaches victims that they will not survive without their family and community and many victims believe this as they have no life experience (and in many cases are not allowed to gain life experience) to prove this notion false.

The people who commit HBV are usually family members or friends within the same community.

HBV is under-reported because those at risk can feel tied by family or community loyalty or are too distressed to speak out.

Due to the complexity of issues surrounding HBV, it is important for professionals to understand the psychology of the perpetrators. Perpetrators of HBV often use honour as an excuse and try to control a victim in any way possible under the guise of cultural standards. Whole communities make this system work by creating a sense of respect for those who are in control. Failing to control their wives or children may therefore actually confer a feeling of shame on the part of the perpetrator – so the feeling of shame may well be real for the perpetrator.

The perpetrator, to ‘save face’ threatens or commits acts of violence in order to control their wives/children in order to prove to the community that they are worthy of respect. Mothers can be guilty of the same behaviour against their children for the same reasons – they are culturally conditioned to believe they have failed as a mother if their child is disobedient. Many perpetrators have convinced themselves that they are only doing their duty as a good parent or member of the community.

Signs and Symptoms

  • Social relationships have narrowed
  • Suspected perpetrator makes all the rules and the victim has no say in his/her own life
  • Extreme restrictions on movement and contact with others
  • Victim shows signs of fear
  • Victim has been injured
  • Victim is withdrawn
  • Victim may excel in school work or employment as symbols of freedom

5 Best Practice Tips for working with victims of HBV:

  • Listen to what the individual is saying about their needs.
  • Don’t use family members, community leaders, friends, etc. as interpreters.
  • Speak to the person alone. They may be influenced by others to say something they don’t mean
  • Ensure completion of a thorough risk assessment and remember the ‘one chance’ rule. Many potential victims of forced marriage may only have one chance to speak to a professional before it is too late
  • Mediation, reconciliation and family counselling as a response to forced marriage and honour based violence can be extremely dangerous

What to do/ Places to contact

Under UK law, HBV is a breach of the victim’s human rights and a form of domestic abuse. If you are concerned that a child you know is at risk of HBV:

  • In an emergency contact the Police
  • Or contact Children’s Services on 0300 555 1384