Most societies try to protect girls from sexual predators by punishing said predators. But in this report, GRACE OBIKE reveals how pre-teens in Abuja, the Nigerian capital city, are tortured and made to undergo breast ironing all in the name of preventing them from being raped.
It is widely believed that one in every four Nigerian girls has been a victim of sexual violence. Of the number who reported their ugly experiences, fewer than 5 % received any form of support, data from the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) shows.
For centuries, the fear of sexual violence has pushed women to adopt different methods of protecting their daughters. In Pygba Sama, a community in Apo about, 14.2km from the Presidential Villa in Abuja, the fear of rape and sexual molestation by randy men has shaped the culture of protection for underage girls.
In order to make teenage girls look less ‘womanly’ and to prevent unwanted male attention, pregnancy and rape, women in Pygba Sama, Kpaduma II and a few other communities in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) practice breast ironing, also known as breast flattening.
Why Iron the breast?
Thirty-year-old Kandie Iliya was in panic mode when she realised that her 10-year-old daughter was beginning to develop breasts. She broke up parts of a calabash into what looks like huge bra cup sizes, called Amapala in Gbagyi language. She then placed the parts of the calabash close to the fire, and when it was hot, she held her screaming daughter down and used it to meticulously massage the daughter’s breasts tissues until she was satisfied it had dissolved.
“I knew she didn’t want it, because she was crying and squirming. But what could I have done? she was too young to start having breasts. I love my daughter and did not want men to start noticing her.” she said.
Kandie is not the only one who believes in such a practice. Thirty-eight-year-old Grace Ekene, who is originally Gbagyi but married to an Igbo man, also decided to iron her daughter’s breasts after realising that the 11 years old was not only towering over her mates in the community but had began to grow breasts.
Although Grace escaped the experience when she was younger because she always ran away each time her mother tried to practice it on her, she still decided to put her daughter through the nightmare for fear of someone noticing the girl or molesting her.
She said: “I didn’t like it when I was young. I was scared of it. Whenever my mother called me for it, I would run away from home till she forgot.
“But after seeing my daughter and the way she was developing beyond her age, I decided to protect her, and I almost succeeded in ironing her breasts.
“Luckily, my friends, who had attended a community meeting on the day that I had set aside to do it, came to visit.
“When I told them what I planned on doing to my daughter that evening, they told me that they were told at the meeting that young girls whose breasts are ironed may develop cancer later in life.”
According to African Health Organisation, breast ironing is the process whereby young pubescent girls’ breasts are ironed, massaged and/or pounded down through the use of hard or heated objects in order for them to disappear or delay their development.
The United Nations (UN) states that breast ironing affects 3.8 million women around the world and has been identified as one of the five under-reported crimes relating to gender-based violence.
Investigation revealed that the unwholesome practice is carried out with the use of grinding stone, cast iron, coconut shell, calabash, hammer or spatula that has been heated for a long time over a scorching coal. It is also done by tightly wrapping the breasts with a belt or cloth.
In Pygba community, the practice of breasts ironing is as old as time. An investigation carried out by our reporter revealed that almost all the community women spoken to had experienced breast ironing at some stage in their life.
Interestingly, most of them insist that their own mothers and grandmothers were also victims of the generational practice.
An investigation carried out in the communities by the Teenage Network, a non governmental organisation, also revealed that one in every three adolescent girls had experienced breast ironing.
Some victims of the practice like Kandie ironed their breasts themselves when they felt their mothers were not forthcoming due to peer pressure.
Kandie said: “Growing up, I ironed my own breasts myself because I did not want to develop breasts early.
“I realised that the parents of all my friends and peers had ironed their breasts, so I didn’t even wait for my mother but did it myself.
“So you can see why I felt that I had to do it to my child.”
Is breast ironing only practised in the FCT?
While Grace Ekene, who is Gbagyi but married to an Igbo man laid out her plan to iron her daughters’ breasts, her best friend in the community, who hails from Enugu State, did the same. Where Grace was going to use the Amapala on the daughter, her friend planned on using a heated spatula as is used in her own village in Enugu.
Olanike Timipa-Uge, Executive Director Teenage Network, an organisation working with Action Aid Nigeria to motivate change in harmful socio-cultural norms that promote violence against women and girls, especially breasts ironing in the FCT explained: “During our baseline assessment which we are implementing in two communities, Pygba Sama and Kpaduma II in the FCT, we identified that one in three adolescent girls in these committees have actually experienced breast ironing.”
She said apart from the FCT, breast ironing is widely practised in Nigeria but reporting is really low.
Timipa-Uge said her organisation has had interactions with adolescent girls in the FCT who came from places like Niger State and they tell them they had experienced it back home.
Apart from Nigeria, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reported that breasts ironing has been reported in other African countries like Cameroon, Togo, Guinea Bissau, West and Central Africa, including Chad, Benin and Guinea-Conakry.
In Nigeria, apart from the FCT and Niger State, it is reportedly more common in Cross River, mostly amongst Cameroon refugees in the state.
Dangers of breasts ironing
Breast ironing is very painful. But apart from the immediate pains experienced by victims, the practice can cause serious physical issues such as abscess, a painful collection of pus that develops under the skin; cysts: fluid-filled lumps under the skin that can develop into abscesses, itching, constant pain, burns due to the heated objects used, tissue damage.
It can also cause infection, discharge of milk, breasts becoming significantly different in shapes or sizes, fever, scarring, mastitis, an inflammation of breast tissue, complete disappearance of one or both breasts, difficulty breastfeeding and an increased likelihood of breast cancer.
Apart from the physical damage to victims, Timipa-Uge says, “it in a way creates a wrong impression about issues of sexual violence. When you iron girls’ breasts because you don’t want them to be sexually abused, you are indirectly saying that the fact that a girl gets sexually abused, the girl is to blame. You are saying the reason why she is being abused is because she has a breast, which is totally unfair to the girl child.”
She also said it could have a psychological effect on the child because eventually, they tend to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Cases of sexual abuse in Pygba Sama
At 13 years old, Maria had her life ahead of her until she was raped and impregnated by a 49-year-old man who threatened her life if she revealed his identity.
She later lost the baby after its birth and eventually confided in an adult who confronted her rapist. He dismissed the aspect of rape, claiming the girl had enjoyed the encounter even though she fought, cried all through, and bled.
Seventeen-year-old Joy was also molested by a young man in his early twenties, but unlike Maria, Joy spoke up. She reported the incident but was blamed by the molester’s parents. They accused her in front of the whole community of indecent dressing and acting like a know-all.
The parents of the rapist shamed, blamed and called her names in the community until the Teenage Network representative in Pygba Sama, Ruth Ibrahim, reported the case to the village head and threatened to report to the police and accuse their son of rape before the family backed down.
What the law says
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) Article 6 states that “States Parties recognise that every child has the inherent right to life. States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.”
Article 19 states: “States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.”
In Nigeria, female genital mutilation/cutting/elongation, breasts Ironing and forced marriages are all criminal offences and are classified as harmful traditional practices under the Violence Against Persons and Prohibition (VAPP) Act.
In terms of punishment, the VAPP Act states: “A person who carries out harmful traditional practices on another commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a term of imprisonment not exceeding four years or to a fine not exceeding N500,000.00 or both.”
Although breast ironing in the VAPP act has been proscribed as a criminal offence punishable by jail term and fine, there is no visible record of a perpetrator who has so far been prosecuted for the crime.
An article by the National Library of Medicine on breast ironing explains that as with a number of other harmful traditional practices (e.g. Female genital mutilation or cutting), breast ironing is typically performed by female familial relatives (e.g. mother, sister, aunt, grandmother, nanny, or another female guardian), and the practice is maintained as a secret between girls and their mothers or other guardians.
It says to date, data and empirical studies on breast ironing have been extremely scarce, thus limiting broad understanding about its extent or general prevalence. Being as secretive a practice as it is due to the relationship between the victims and perpetrators has made reportage of the crime difficult.
Even the National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), which was mandated by the Federal Government to administer the provisions of the VAPP Act said the agency had not handled any complaints on breast ironing.
Steps being taken to end breast ironing in FCT
NAPTIP insists that even though no one has come forward to report a case of breast ironing in the FCT, it is aware of its existence and taking steps to curb it.
Director, VAPP Dept at the agency, Mrs. Ijeoma Amugo, said: “The issue was raised on the sideline of our engagement with some stakeholders from the Kabusa area of Apo, Abuja, some weeks ago and it was agreed that they should promptly report such a case to NAPTIP.
“The DG has also directed improved surveillance in the community alongside sustained awareness and enlightenment on the danger of such harmful practices.”
Apart from NAPTIP, Teenage Network has been working with stakeholders in Pygba Sama and Kpaduma II for the past three years on awareness creation.
Teenage Network’s representative in Pygba Sama, Ruth Ibrahim, said she did not know about breast ironing until she relocated to the community with her husband.
According to her, after her relocation, she noticed the high number of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) within the community, with men battering their wives at the slightest provocation, like being served their meals without meat, even when they (the men) refuse to provide money for food to wives who are mostly housewives.
She added: “I became friendly with the young girls in the community and they began opening up to me.
“Many of them come to me with things they cannot tell their mothers. It was in the process that I learnt about their tradition of breast ironing and the high level of sexual abuse being committed by older men and young boys.
“So far, I have confronted a lot of these molesters, called them and their families out in community gatherings that I have organised and sensitised the women on the dangers of breast ironing.”
Ruth Ibrahim says a lot has changed in Pygba Sama in the last three years in the aspect of breast ironing because the women are now listening and have begun ostracising mothers who still insist on practicing breast ironing.
Luckily, practitioners like Kandie Iliya are beginning to repent. “After ironing that of my first daughter, I did not iron the breasts of my second because I have become aware of its dangers.
“I did that of my first daughter out of ignorance because I thought I was doing what was best for her.
“But now, they told me that it could lead to cancer, breast pains after giving birth, or it could prevent a mother from producing milk after giving birth. I don’t want anything to happen to my daughters.” she said.
On her part, Timipa-Uge said so far the network has recorded quite a number of success stories. Adolescent girls in the communities have confirmed that there has been a significant reduction in the rate of breast ironing ever since the programme started.
She added: “We’ve had girls whose older siblings had experienced breast ironing before the programme now telling us they were saved from experiencing that, and we have had community women openly telling us how they have changed their mind on the practice.”