Meaning of Breast Ironing
Breast ironing, also known as breast flattening, is the pounding and massaging of a pubescent girl’s breasts, using hard or heated objects, to try to make them stop developing or disappear. The practice is typically performed by a close female figure to the victim, traditionally fulfilled by a mother, grandmother, aunt, or female guardian who will say she is trying to protect the girl from sexual harassment and rape, to prevent early pregnancy that would tarnish the family name, preventing the spread of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV/AIDs, or to allow the girl to pursue education rather than be forced into early marriage.
The practice mirrors ugly misogynistic beliefs and values that underpin other abusive practices. It is ultimately reflective of a power dynamic that demands female submissiveness and complete control over the sexuality of women and girls. Perpetrators of breast ironing believe that beating breast tissue with hot grinding stones will melt the breast fat, causing impairment and cessation of growth of the breast, and delaying the age at which girls are viewed as ready for marriage or sexual activity. This violence is performed because of a belief that preventing the natural development of breasts protects the girls from rape, child marriage, abduction, harassment, and pregnancy, allowing for girls to continue their education and stay in school. Perpetrators believe they are engaging in an act helpful to a young girl by enabling her to continue her education. Yet, breast ironing is ineffective at protecting women from sexual harassment and exploitation.
Health Consequences of Breast Ironing
Breast ironing is extremely painful and can cause tissue damage. As of 2006, there have been no medical studies on its effects. However, medical experts warn that it might contribute toward breast cancer, cysts and depression, and perhaps interfere with breastfeeding later. In addition to this, breast ironing puts girls at risk of abscesses, cysts, infections, and permanent tissue damage, resulting in breast pimples, imbalance in breast size, and milk infection from scarring. In extreme cases of damage, there are currently ten cases of diagnosed breast cancer reported from women who identified as victims of breast ironing. Other possible side effects include malformed breasts and the eradication of one or both breasts. The practice ranges dramatically in its severity, from using heated leaves to press and massage the breasts, to using a scalding grinding stone to crush the budding gland. Due to this variation, health consequences vary from benign to acute. The Child Rights Information Network (CRIN) reports the delay of breast milk development after birth, endangering the life of newborns.
Breast ironing can cause women to fear sexual activity. Aside from physical effects, many women suffer mental trauma after undergoing breast ironing. Victims feel as if it is punishment and often internalise blame, and fear breastfeeding in the future. Victims may lose confidence and self esteem and believe that they should not have breasts. Breast ironing is a form of physical mutilation that also damages a child’s social and psychological wellbeing, and contributes to the high rate of school dropout among girls subject to the abuse. The effects can be traumatic. In addition to causing pain, breast ironing can cause girls to feel shame over their bodies. Girls often trust the decision of their mothers or older female relatives to iron their breasts, not questioning the practice, and not realizing it can be harmful.
The practice is ultimately ineffective, since it does not stop breasts from developing and it does not prevent unwanted male attention. Unfortunately, the fears over rape, early pregnancy, and child marriage are not unfounded. The root problem is violence against women and gender inequality. Systemic choices to value women as equals should be adopted instead breast ironing which is viewed as a way to make girls less attractive and protect them from gender-based violence.
Picture Credit: Shakeafrica.org