In Depth

What is breast ironing and how common is it in the UK?

School says sorry for asking children as young as 11 to research the harmful practice

A headteacher has apologised after pupils turned to the internet to research “inappropriate” homework topics including pornography and breast ironing.

Students as young as 11 were asked to “define” practices and issues that also included female genital mutilation, wet dreams, trafficking and male circumcision.

The work was given to pupils in years 7, 8 and 9 at Hull’s Archbishop Sentamu Academy as part of their Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) learning, the Hull Daily Mail reports.

Following complaints from parents, head teacher Chay Bell said that students “were not directed to research these topics themselves on the internet, because all the answers to the questions posed are contained in the teacher-produced materials we shared”.

But he added: “I am genuinely sorry if parents or students have unnecessarily researched any of these phrases and for any offence caused by this mistake.”

Speaking to the local newspaper, a parent named only as “Mrs Taylor” said: “It was asking about male circumcision, breast ironing... I don’t even know what that is myself.”

The National Education Union said last year that breast ironing awareness should be made part of the mandatory school curriculum to protect young girls from abuse, as the BBC reported at the time.

What does breast ironing involve?

Breast ironing uses heated objects, including stones and hammers, to flatten a girl’s breasts and stop them from developing.  

It’s typically carried out when the girls are aged between 11 and 15, as they enter puberty, and is often done by the victim's own family under the “misguided intention” of protecting her from rape and sexual harassment, according to the United Nations.

One victim from Cameroon told Channel 4 News: “I remember my dad kept going on and on about the fact my breasts were coming out [and said:] ‘Men are going to be looking at her.’”

Ann Marie Christian, a UK-based safeguarding practitioner, said she met a teacher from a London school whose pupil had been breast-ironed by her mother when they lived in a west African country.

“She described it as a formality, something they just did every day, a chore, like washing up,” Christian told The Guardian.

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

“A lot of the [victims] have inverted nipples; they're not able to breastfeed their children,” Geraldine Yenwo, the founder of Came Women and Girls Development Organisation, told Sky News.

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.

“In Cameroon, up to 50 per cent of girls as young as ten years old undergo terribly painful breast ironing on a daily basis,” the organisation says.

How prevalent is it in the UK?

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.

Community workers in London, Yorkshire, Essex and the West Midlands have all reported cases of breast ironing, but the custom is extremely secretive and there is no official data on how widespread it is, says The Guardian.

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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, the equalities minister, Susan Williams, said last month.

“Breast ironing is child abuse and it is illegal,” she said. “No one should suffer because of who they are or which community they are born into.”

Jess Phillips, the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, said that like FGM, breast ironing and other harmful cultural practices are “complex issues to solve”.

However, “we must do all we can to educate communities against the practices and seek to prosecute perpetrators and protect victims,” she added.

The Home Office has said teachers have a duty to report concerns.

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