We’ve heard about FGM and child marriage. Girls are supposed to put spoons in their underwear to get pulled over by border guards or call the number on the toilet door.
One problem that’s got less attention is one that probably only a few are aware of. Breast ironing is a traditionally West and Central African issue, most commonly found in Cameroon. It is as simple as the name suggests- the breasts of young girls are ironed, usually by their mothers, in order to prevent their growth. Girls with breasts are commonly seen as available sexually, so the excuse given for the procedure is that it prevents them being victims of rape. Other excuses are that of preventing early pregnancy that shames the family or that it even allows them the chance of an education.
Practiced in countries across Africa, it is similar to FGM in that it is not limited to a specific religion, tribe or ethnic group, though it is more common in Muslim areas of Cameroon than in Christian ones. There is no religious basis, it is a cultural practice.
The physical symptoms are obvious- agonising pain, tissue damage, lack of ability to breastfeed, depression and cancer. The mental symptoms are also apparent, considering how it makes the victim feel as though they were being punished and that they are the ones who must change for society, not the other way around. Which makes it more alarming that it’s made its way to the UK.
Due to the secretive nature of the procedure, there is no way of counting cases or measuring the scale of it on our shores. Care workers estimate it at around 1000 cases, though that is of course only a rough estimate and based on anecdotal evidence. It looks as though it is primarily based in the Cameroonian Diaspora, though other nationalities may be involved. The cases are getting so numerous that activists are asking for it to be taught in schools, mandatory for all in a way sex education often is.
It’s an emerging issue, not on the same level as FGM in notoriety or numbers, but one case is still bad enough. We need to question why this is and why it is happening in our society, a society that prides itself on gender equality and body autonomy. It is not something that can be answered in a short article, it is deserving of an epic miniseries in itself. It is rooted in gender inequality, lack of bodily choice, patriarchal society, absolute parental rights and the history of sexuality within society. The pain for victims is real and true, the ideology coming from a genuine belief in protecting the girl. In societies were women are often preyed upon sexually, people will do all they can under the misguided belief that they are preventing what is often sadly inevitable. It also puts blame upon the victim- if she is rather well developed then she will be blamed for being sexually available and tempting men. There is no protection in blame.
The subject may not be a major one and the article itself not ‘sexy’ enough, but the issue needs raising. It is not up to us to be ignorant of issues that don’t affect us, we must realise that living in a decent society such as the UK means protecting all those who are part of it, whoever they are. Nearly all readers will not have heard of it and none will have likely experienced it, but that is why we must know.
The real feminism of a liberal democracy is looking out for everyone without fear of the repercussions.
by Sarah Stook