Early Childhood Sexual Abuse: What Is Breast Ironing?

Sexual abuse is a reality that millions of women around the world grow up experiencing. In fact, nearly four million will have experienced the act of “breast ironing” — which most of us have probably never heard about. For those who have, it’s about as horrific an act of intense violence and abuse as can be conceived. For those who have not, it’s about time to learn. We need to identify forms of abuse before we can put an end to them.

Sometimes called “breast flattening,” ironing is exactly what it sounds like: Heated irons or other flat objects are pounded into a pubescent girl’s breasts in order to prevent development — or to destroy them altogether.

Much of this abuse — as insane as this sounds — is perpetrated by a close family member such as the mother or grandmother. And even more strangely, most of these family members contend that they are trying to protect their beloved daughter from rate or other forms of harassment and sexual assault. But then again, these are also mostly conservative guardians who admit that a childhood pregnancy would besmirch the family’s honor.

Other reasons for the barbaric practice include preventing an early (and forced) marriage, which often occurs subsequent to unexpected pregnancy in many third-world countries or to prevent sexually transmitted infections that are more common in some countries. Sometimes, we forget that HIV and AIDS are part of a worldwide pandemic that gets less and less attention as treatment options here at home become more widely available (and do a better job of preventing serious illness). 

One California sexual abuse attorney acknowledged that sexual abuse is common in the United States, but not this kind. 

Dr. Leyla Hussein OBE writes, “Last year, the United Nations called attention to the ‘shadow pandemic’ that has spread alongside COVID-19. Domestic violence against women increased significantly due to the confinement imposed dby international lockdowns. Unfortunately, this shadow pandemic does not receive the attention it deserves.”

She continued, “A girl undergoing [female genital mutilation] in Somalia; a wife being abused by her husband in England; a woman enduring sexual harrassment in Mexico; a female executive not receiving the same pay as her male counterpart in Canada — each of these experiences are tied together through the strings of misogyny, which are rarely discussed and challenged but are right there in plain sight if you are willing to look for them.”

Hussein is concerned that even while human rights moments like #MeToo are becoming more common, turning a blind eye to these acts of harassment, abuse, violence, and gender inequality is still a worldwide problem. This is not just something we see in the third world. This is something pervasive here at home.

Breast ironing isn’t a single act of abuse. It occurs for weeks, sometimes months, at a time until the breasts show signs of halting development. The abuse can become worse — and more prolonged — when the victim resists. The act is becoming more common in England due to Cameroonian subculture.