This blog was created in collaboration with international safeguarding expert Ann Marie Christian.
In the absence of any detailed, official government guidance, schools are wondering how they should be preventing, identifying and tackling breast ironing, and how they should support pupils who have already fallen victim to the practice. We’ve recently seen an increase in this practice being mentioned in mainstream media, as articles have highlighted the rise in reported cases and the realisation that it happens here in the UK.
We spoke to child protection and safeguarding consultant Ann Marie Christian to get an expert’s insight into how schools can protect their pupils and what support they can offer in relation to breast ironing. She has experience working with families involved with this practice as a child protection social worker and manager.
What is breast ironing?
‘Breast ironing’, also known as ‘breast sweeping’ or ‘breast flattening’, is the act of flattening the breast area of young girls with hot stones or poles, bandages or other instruments, to stop the child’s development of breasts pre or during puberty.
Mothers or grandmothers usually carry out the act, as they believe this will protect the girl from unwanted male attention, sexual harassment, assault and rape. Fathers or siblings often don’t know it is happening, as it’s usually a very discreet and private act carried out behind closed doors in the home.
The secretive nature of the practice, which originated in West Africa, makes it difficult to measure how widespread it is becoming in the UK, but we do know that since it was first referenced in Appendix A in small detail in ‘Keeping children safe in education’ 2016 with honour-based violence (HBV), and is still mentioned in ‘Keeping children safe in education’ 2018, we must acknowledge that it happens to children here in the UK too.
Parliament is now discussing whether mandatory reporting of breast ironing should be expected of schools and how it should be addressed in statutory child protection training.
Is it similar to FGM?
Both FGM and breast ironing are performed with the intention to slow the development of puberty, hinder a child’s sexuality and reserve a child’s virginity and innocence; however, there isn’t enough information available yet to see whether the two practices are connected. They are both acts of violence against women and children.
Under the British government, both practices fit into categories of neglect, physical, emotional and possibly sexual abuse, and are criminal offences punishable under the Children Act 1989; therefore, either one could trigger an enquiry under section 47 if intelligence or evidence is shared by school DSLs to children’s social care.
FGM is irreversible, but breasts that have been flattened can grow again after a period of recovery; however, the experience does have long-term physical and emotional effects and affects the growth of the breast area.
A girl undergoing breast ironing may suffer from:
- Low confidence and self-esteem.
- Tenderness and pain in the breast area.
- Restricted movement due to tight bandages or tight material strapped around the breast area or torso.
- A breakdown of their relationship or a negative relationship with their mother or grandmother.
- Mental health symptoms such as anxiety, depression, etc.
- A halt in physical development in the chest area.
Long-term effects include:
- Breast cancer.
- Trouble developing intimate relationships as an adult.
- A distrust of their mother around their own children.
Knowing the warning signs
As the procedure is carried out by a trusted family member, a victim may not understand that what is being done to her is a form of abuse and is harmful.
This can make her unable or unwilling to disclose her situation to the school, and it’s difficult for the school to pick up signs that it is happening.
As part of their training, school staff should learn to look out for the following behaviours that may indicate a child has undergone, or is at risk of, breast ironing practice:
- Refusing to take part in PE or change for PE or other activities. i.e. school play, swimming, etc.
- Positioning herself differently in PE or appearing to wear a lot of padding on her chest
- Complaining of tenderness in the chest area
- Wearing baggy or loose clothing around her breast area
- Avoiding normal/regular movement
- Isolating herself from others
- Making references to painful massage
How can we tackle it?
Ann Marie recommends broadening your annual child protection training by including breast ironing within the four categories of abuse and carrying out additional training that focusses on harmful practices such as breast ironing, FGM, chastisement, forced marriage, etc.
In secondary schools, teachers, heads of year and PE staff also need to know the warning signs and educate their staff on what to look out for.
In primary schools, TAs and teachers need to be mindful of pupils changing for activities or PE in the classroom – do they have any marks on their body? Do they have padding on their chest? Are they avoiding interaction with their peers?
Teachers should pay attention to how pupils move their bodies and manoeuvre – can they move their hands/arms properly? Do they look in pain when reaching, leaning or twisting?
Educating pupils about physical boundaries, private body parts and respect, and about physical development during puberty, as part of PSHE and RSE, is one way to encourage victims who may not understand the nature of what is happening to them to come forward.
Helping children to understand healthy relationships and how their bodies will naturally develop helps them to identify the practice as a form of abuse.
When teaching about bras, emphasise their purpose for support and growth and listen out for children who talk about their mother or female relative using bandages, hot irons or cloths instead of bras.
In the interest of age-appropriateness, it’s important to remember that breast ironing may begin prior to puberty as the child starts developing breasts, sometimes known as the ‘budding’ stage, so pupils in Year 4 and above could benefit from these types of discussions in certain lessons.
In secondary schools, to maximise prevention it’s better to start teaching these lessons earlier rather than later in order to identify incidents as early as possible – pupils in the late years of secondary school may already have suffered.
Some parents choose to opt their children out of certain RSE or PSHE lessons. So, how can you make sure these pupils aren’t overlooked?
Ann Marie recommends making appropriate physical touch, space and boundaries part of the ground rules in your Behaviour Policy.
Without being specific about breast-ironing, this helps them to develop an understanding of right and wrong physical interactions, which they can then apply to other environments.
Some parents have beliefs based on their race, culture, class or gender that could conflict with the principles in the Children Act 1989 concerning the wellbeing and protection of children relating to physical and emotional neglect, and sexual abuse.
Talking to parents about various discipline and child-rearing practices that the school has a duty of care to report to authorities if they place a child at risk of significant harm, and relating this back to the Children Act 1989, is a key way of establishing child protection as a joint responsibility between the school and parents.
Make it clear that, while the school appreciates different belief systems and lifestyles, all staff should know that the welfare of the child is paramount and, if the school identifies harm to a child, it will support the family to understand the concern raised by the school. If behaviours continue, then external agencies will be contacted to offer external support via an assessment to support the family.
Schools should have a commitment to safeguarding and providing pastoral care to families, often using the LA early help offer. This should be an integral part of your Safeguarding and Child Protection Policy and sharing this with parents via the school website, newsletters, school prospectus and open days emphasises the school’s dedication to child protection and promoting the welfare of every child.
Once you or a colleague has picked up on an indicator of abuse or a low-level concern, you should speak to the DSL immediately and confidentially.
It is then their responsibility to gather as much information as possible by talking to the child and asking indirect questions around the subject to encourage disclosure. Depending on what the child says, the DSL may then speak to the parents or refer directly to children’s social care.
It was recently reported that some staff are wary of reporting suspicions of breast ironing for fear of being perceived as racist. How can schools overcome this?
The most important thing to remember is that we cannot risk a child undergoing further harm, and that if we have suspicions, we must act on them sensitively in the best interest of the child, regardless of their race, culture or religion.
When reporting to the DSL or investigating suspicions of breast ironing, be clear that you are focussing on potential harm being done to a child by another person.
You may have heard breast ironing referred to as a “cultural practice”; however, the term “harmful practice” is more accurate, as people excuse cultures and ignore the real need for reporting incidents – the harm being done to the child.
Sadly, you may not realise this is happening to a pupil in your setting until it’s too late for preventative measures; however, you can still offer support after the act has been carried out.
Help to rebuild their confidence, by offering:
- Pastoral care
- Early help services
- Contact with social care for advice and support
- Referral to CAMHS
- Contact with the school nurse
The following sources provide more information about breast ironing in relation to the law and what to do if you are worried that a girl is at risk:
If you’d like to learn more about safeguarding from Ann-Marie Christian (in relation to breast ironing or any other topic), you can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her website at www.annmariechristian.com.
 Inna Lazareva (2019) ‘Breast-ironing: victims urge stronger action to root out dangerous custom’ <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/mar/04/breast-ironing-victims-urge-stronger-action-to-root-out-dangerous-custom> [Accessed: 29 May 2019]