Repressive cultures have a way of finding a foot in society. For some reason, these harmful practices – mainly targeting women and girls – are celebrated amongst the perpetrators who claim they are doing the victim a favour or acting in their best interest.
Take “breast ironing” for example, a practice amongst many Nigerian communities, including Kpaduma and Basara communities in Abuja, the federal capital; its perpetrators say they protect the girl child from sexual assaults, gender-based violence, and unwanted pregnancy.
Breast ironing, or breast flattening, is a gravely harmful practice that uses a hard object or a heated substance in a repetitive pounding motion against an adolescent’s breast to stop or delay its development.
Beyond Nigeria, the breast ironing practice has been documented in Togo, the Republic of Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Cameroon, where 25-50% of girls undergo this process.
Young girls on the verge of puberty and sexual development are made to undergo the gruesome process of breast ironing, usually against their will.
A model female figure performs the act, usually a mother, grandmother or guardian, using grinding stones, a cast iron, a heated hammer, or a coconut shell. It is also done by tightly wrapping the breasts with a belt or cloth.
For some girls, this procedure could last several days, weeks or even months, depending on the level of the breasts’ resistance.
If the breast resistance is high, one breast could be ironed several times a day for weeks until the goal is achieved, which is to suppress the breast or to cause it to disappear entirely.
Many communities practising it hold purity and virginity in high esteem, so they believe the development of a woman’s breast is tied directly to her sexuality; hence the practice of breast ironing is done to uphold, sustain and command appropriate sexual behaviour.
In doing this, they believe they are protecting the girl’s “family name” from embarrassment. Unironed breasts could attract men to the girl, resulting in rape, unwanted pregnancy, or early marriage, they believe.
In some other communities, the practice seems to suggest that female sexuality and development is something to be ashamed, denied or hidden.
Underlying this ideology is the belief that society must constantly ensure girls are “well-behaved” by removing their body parts to “protect them”, and the practices are embedded within the goodwill of the perpetrators.
What are experts saying?
But experts say the practice has no known scientifically verified benefits.
“These are some of the harmful practices we campaign against in the medical field; it’s actually a no-no practice medically. It does a lot, including psychological scarring of the girl child and destroying the girl child’s beauty. They are very dangerous practices,” said Pat-Enike Gladwin, head of the intensive care unit at Zenith Medical centre in Abuja.
Advocates for Human Rights, a US-based nonprofit protecting the freedom and integrity in global communities, said the practice is a brutal violation of human rights.
“Breast ironing in itself shouldn’t even be considered as something result-oriented because how can a practice that could pass as being barbaric be thought to provoke positive results?” it said.
“Breast ironing as a practice is ultimately deliberate, though arguably ignorant, violence against the girl child as this practice is both ineffective in itself and its results. Seeing it does not stop breasts from developing, neither does it prevent unwanted male attention; all it does is inflict pain and psychological trauma on its victims (the girl child).”
Gladwin said the health consequences include tissue damage, increased risk of cysts (air and fluid in breast tissues), and depression. It could also interfere with breastfeeding later, as many victims complain of difficulty lactating later. It leads to an imbalance in breast size and infection from scarring.
Sadly, breast ironing has not received the awareness and attention it deserves, and it falls under the category of under-reported stories related to gender-based violence.
It would take doubled effort from human rights advocates, health experts, and policymakers to discourage communities from the practice. If it does only harm and has no trace of good, why practice it?