Breast Ironing: A Harmful Practice That Spans Generations

The cocks crowed, signifying morning was nigh.
Hope shuddered as she thought of what awaited her.
Her developing breasts throbbed with excruciating pain, worsened hours ago when her mama had pounded them with hot stones.
She’d cried and pled as mama pounded and auntie held her, but it was useless.
They said they were doing it for her, they didn’t want the men to desire her, but Hope felt none of their love.
All she felt was the pain.
And she saw the scars she knew would never leave.
She heard mama’s footsteps. It was time.
This was her daily routine, one that began when she’d clocked nine and the breasts started to show.
She sobbed, wishing herself away from this hidden ritual.
No one could hear her, no one could save her.

Hope may not be real but what she suffered – breast ironing – is. This is the reality for many girls.

Breast ironing is an action perpetuated to stop the development of breasts. It is carried out by using hot objects like stones, paddles, spatulas, and brooms to massage, pound, and press the breasts flat. Sometimes, belts or bandages are used to bind the breasts. This act is usually carried out by mothers, female relatives, shamans and rarely, the victim.

I first came to know of this practice when I stumbled across a report by Aljazeera, detailing this cruel act that is ongoing within refugee communities in Ogoja, Nigeria – my country. The report explained that this act is carried out by refugee Cameroonian mothers because of the high levels of sexual harassment and assault to which female refugees are exposed. It is done in the hope that their daughters will become less desirable to men.

According to the United Nations, 3.8 million girls in the world today are affected by breast ironing.

Breast ironing culture, also known as breast flattening, is widespread in African countries like Cameroon, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Benin, and Togo. It is most prevalent in Cameroon, with the number of girls who have been subjected to it estimated at around 1.3 million! However, it is not only prevalent in African countries. Came Women and Girls Development organization estimate that every year, 1000 girls aged 9-15 across the UK are victims of breast ironing!

The reasons behind the practice are meant to “protect” girls.

Mothers perform this act because they believe that no breasts will make their daughters less attractive to the opposite sex, thereby warding off sexual advances. These mothers ignore their daughters’ pain as they have the intention of “protecting” them from rape, sexual harassment, early marriage.

Nonetheless, it remains a misguided intention because breast ironing only exposes girls to extreme pain, psychological damage, infections, cancer, and inverted nipples.

What’s being done against breast ironing?

Breast ironing does not receive as much attention as it should. In Cameroon, where it is rampant, anti-breast ironing laws are non-existent. In the UK, it has been recognized as abuse within the Violence Against Women and Girls strategy. As of July 2019, The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has updated the So-Called Honour-Based Abuse and Forced Marriage guidance to recognize breast ironing as a criminal offense. Notwithstanding, to date there have been no prosecutions. This practice continues in secret and is difficult to detect.

While organizations exist that fight against this act, more still needs to be done.

We need to stop it now and save lives.

People need to understand that breast ironing is not capable of solving the larger problems. It is just a branch of a larger tree: gender inequality.

Girls should be seen as equals and taught to respect themselves. Women should understand that sexual abuse is not their fault but the perpetrator’s. This way we can wipe away the need for this practice. Sex education for mothers, children, families should also be integrated into the society.

Lacking restrictions against breast ironing is one of the reasons this practice festers.

The law has turned its face away and refuses to protect these girls. No more should we give the excuse of culture when millions are hurting. We have to start prosecuting perpetrators – this will serve as a deterrent and protect victims. Educators need to be alert for signs of breast ironing. Finding out early will be effective in saving girls.

Breast ironing is a global issue that we need to pay attention to. We should work towards affecting solutions and curing these inequalities that devalue women. Most importantly, we have to put an end to sexual violence, as this harmful practice was ignorantly borne as its solution. We have to stop hurting girls and go after perpetrators of this act and sexual abuse.

The Community Health Drive: A COVID-19 Innovation

Local, grassroots organizations have the pleasure of working on-the-ground and communicating directly with those they serve. They ensure that vulnerable populations receive the care, information, and sexual and reproductive health services they need.

How can we all (individuals, organizations, and governments) use innovation to adapt our work to the dynamic intricacies present in this COVID-19 world? And, how can we use the lessons learned during this pandemic as a stepping stone towards a more sustainable future? 

Innovation in Information Sharing

Creativity, innovation, and partnership are key elements in creating effective and engaging community outreach campaigns. 

Since March, Girl Up Initiative Uganda has been working tirelessly to build youth-friendly, community-centric, and innovative solutions to the complexities accompanying social-distancing and lockdown measures in Uganda. 

One of our main concerns is the rapid spread of harmful misinformation or the complete lack of access to reliable resources. This disproportionately affects vulnerable, hard-to-reach populations. 

UN Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, Melissa Fleming, stated “COVID-19 is not just this century’s largest public health emergency, but also a communications crisis…”.  

An important point to also keep in mind is that this ‘communications crisis’ impacts girls and women more severely than men due to the gender digital divide present in most low and middle-income countries. 

In Africa, the proportion of women using the Internet is 25% lower than the proportion of men using the Internet. With an onslaught of information constantly being circulated without verification, people—mainly women and girls—are left in the dark, with many important questions unanswered. 

Mobility and Partnerships as a Solution: Community Health Drive

In response to the complex relationship of COVID-19 and information sharing (with the ability to spread faster than the actual virus itself), Girl Up Initiative Uganda decided to host our first-ever Community Health Drive through our Ni-Yetu Youth Program

The health drive consisted of our team driving in a special, colorful health van to reach the heart of urban communities. We shared health messages via loudspeaker and disseminated information materials.

Information included:

  • public health guidelines for COVID-19,
  • mental health,
  • sexual and reproductive health (SRH),
  • assistance for survivors of violence,
  • and more based on the community’s needs. 

Driving through the streets, we relayed health messages via loudspeaker and megaphone to not only share information. We also wanted to entice curious community members to come out and take a look at the action. 

And it worked! 

After months of lockdown, people were excited and happy to receive health services and resources straight to their doors. One-on-one conversations proved to be fruitful. They fostered openness and trust between Girl Up Uganda staff and community members. 

This was a powerful and fun way to reach people where they are. We were able to provide impactful community-based care to vulnerable populations. 

Our Director of Programs, Clare Tusingwire, stressed the importance of this Health Drive. She pointed out that it was a necessary way to learn what our communities are experiencing at this time. She also said it was a way to remind them that Girl Up Uganda is here to help and support them. 

“This is a key element to bringing about change. People are hungry for information in any way…We even had one parent reach out to us after the Community Health Drive with the hope that we could counsel her daughter.”

The Key of Partnerships

We cannot work alone, especially during these challenging times. 

Girl Up Initiative Uganda knows the importance of building community trust through key partnerships. This helps to assuage fears and promote genuine interest in receiving our information and messages. Therefore, we coordinated our health drive with the local authorities from the Kampala Capital City Authority to ensure safety and good health practices during the day. 

We also partnered with Action 4 Health Uganda and Naguru Teenage Information and Health Centre. These are two well-established and respected organizations supporting the rights of adolescents to sexual and reproductive health services in Kampala. 

With the permission of city officials and partnerships with other organizations, we were able to innovatively disseminate critical information to those most in need. 

There has never been a greater need for access to valid and scientifically-sound information. 

Fighting the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 does not require the use of sophisticated technologies. It requires empowering communities with accurate information, dispelling fears, and promoting togetherness. 

Our Health Drive was a beautiful example of using innovative approaches to further our mission – to create a vibrant movement of confident advocates, using their voices and knowledge to support and mentor others.   

 

Periods Don’t Stop During Pandemics

COVID-19, which led to panic buying globally, left supermarkets devoid of products necessary for basic needs like eating, using the toilet, and sleeping. For women, menstrual management, though often overlooked and stigmatized, is a basic need. Silently, periods continue during pandemics. Millions struggle to manage their menstruation in a healthy and dignified way. Many lack access to basic menstrual products, water and toilets.

Period Taboos Don’t Stop During Pandemics Either

I’m experiencing period pain, but have to take care of three patients who need my help.”

Women account for almost 70% of healthcare professionals, and are the main carers of children, elderly, and sick. Yet, their periods are forgotten, hidden and dismissed. Blogger Audrey Jiajia Li exposed the problem of female Chinese healthcare workers who, dressed in their protective gears, were unable to change their menstrual products or take a day off for the pain. 

Women sustain the social and healthcare workforce. Yet, their menstrual needs are unaccounted for in service planning and delivery. Period products are not considered necessities by many in leadership positions -mostly men – which has a direct impact on women’s lives and on the pursuit of gender equity. Thus, the first step for good health and effective gender equality is acknowledging and addressing the needs and issues around menstruation.

There is no health without sexual and reproductive health, and there is no sexual and reproductive health without menstrual health

Period products during pandemics

Period Poverty Continues

“If we need to wear masks, they should be given for free.” 

On social media, I read these attention-grabbing words. I think about the millions of women who cannot afford menstrual hygiene products. 

Among poor and marginalized communities, 1 in 10 people struggle to afford these products. This is becoming an increasing issue worldwide with more people burdened financially from COVID-19 related layoffs.

Unfortunately, the most affected women and girls are the poorest. When faced with choosing between food and pads, food is the obvious choice. However, inaccessibility to menstrual hygiene products impact females’ health and everyday lives.

“If we need to wash our hands, we need access to clean water and toilets.”
WASH and COVID-19

Although access to sanitary products is essential, other obstacles to safe menstrual management exist. This includes access to clean water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH).

The Coronavirus pandemic demonstrates inequalities between people. Health authorities are clear – washing hands with soap for at least 20 seconds kills the virus. While this gesture seems simple, for the 3 billion people worldwide who don’t have access to running water and who lack hand-washing facilities at home or in school, it may not be.

Adequate WASH is not just essential to prevent Covid-19 infections. WASH also plays a large role in menstrual health and hygiene. Being unable to wash your sanitary materials or clean your hands may lead to vaginal infections. Being unable to change or dispose of sanitary materials from insufficient toilets at work or school may lead to women and girls choosing to stay home.

Period Activists (and Nonprofits) Keep Working 

COVID-19 and menstrual management have more things in common than one may think. They disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people and hinder women and girls reaching their full potential.

COVID-19 has brought existing inequalities to light and the fight for gender equity through good menstrual health is a dimension that shouldn’t be forgotten. Activists and organizations have been working for years to abolish period stigma, improve WASH and obtain affordable menstrual health products for all. COVID-19 and the measures to contain its spread have impacted their work.

However, period activists, NGOs and nonprofits have not stopped. In fact, they are more active now than ever. They have shown an immense ability to adapt, with DIY online workshops for reusable menstrual products, improved distribution of supplies for the most vulnerable communities, and groundbreaking awareness and advocacy campaigns.

Swedish Organization for Global Health webinar, Periods in Pandemics: menstrual health activism during the COVID-19 crisis was held on May 28th. Menstrual Hygiene Day hosted our conversation with menstrual health activists and nonprofit workers from Sweden, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. They spoke about the challenges they face and, most importantly, how they are overcoming them.

Find the recording of the our webinar below.

Lockdown in Uganda: Solutions in a Time of Crisis

On March 31st, the Ugandan government announced a nationwide lockdown and curfew to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Clare Tusingwire, Girl Up Initiative Uganda’s Programme Director, has continued to support our communities during this difficult period.

Read our interview with Clare to learn about the impact of the lockdown on the lives of women and girls, and what Girl Up Initiative Uganda (GUIU) is doing to help.

1. What is daily life like in your community during the lockdown?

COVID-19 has made the lives of many living in Kampala extremely difficult, particularly in the deprived slum areas where GUIU works. While the government is distributing food to the most vulnerable families, not everyone is receiving the handouts.

Families are improvising every day because they do not have enough savings to sustain them. In the very poorest households, people are eating porridge made of cassava flour mixed with water and salt. For many, this is the cheapest starch available. 

2. Do you have any individual stories to share?

One story that particularly struck me was from a mother I counselled. She told me that she was feeling despondent because she used to be able to work to provide for her children. Now, she is struggling to provide a daily meal for them because her income stream has dried up. She told me that she lets her children rest and read their school books while she completes the heavy household chores. She hopes this will reduce the children’s hunger as they wait for their next meal. When she later received one of our relief packages, she was so excited.

3. What is the specific impact of COVID- 19 on girls and women in Uganda, particularly those living in urban slum communities?

Girls’ education has been significantly disrupted since the closure of schools. This is further exacerbated by increasing incidences of GBV as men are under more mental and economic stress.

As we know from other crises, girls and women are the most vulnerable.

As the incidence of GBV increases, there is a risk that some girls might never get the opportunity to return to school to complete their education. Parents usually save for fees over time, and there is likely to be a shortfall of money since livelihoods have been disrupted due to COVID-19.

4. Can you describe Girl Up Initiative Uganda’s response to COVID-19?

GUIU is reaching out to the girls and the families we support through our Survive & Thrive Fund. Two weeks ago, we started distribution of ‘family relief packages’ for the families of the at-risk girls we work with to enable them to survive. These packages contain food, soap, and sanitary pads to help families stay healthy and fed. We have already served 550 families, and aim to reach a total of 1,500 families.

Distributing the packages has also been critical as it give us the opportunity to check-in on and counsel the girls enrolled in our programmes in person. We are also sharing information about a 24/7 tollfree number (0800200600) where people can report cases of abuse or ask questions about COVID-19.

5. What do you think the long-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis will be on the rights of women and girls?

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, girls and women face the risk of backsliding and regression in terms of achieving gender equality and women’s rights.

The longer the lockdown continues, the more girls and women will lose their freedom to speak out. Girls will be unable to access safe spaces and programmes, such as our Adolescent Girls Programme.

More girls will be at risk of early pregnancy. They will also be more vulnerable to abuse from older men who offer to provide pads, food, and school fees in exchange for sex (‘sugar daddies’).

6. Do you have any advice for those who are currently experiencing lockdown?

We must tirelessly continue to raise awareness of COVID-19 by reminding our programme participants and our own communities to keep safe, keep healthy, and wash your hands.

As my team emphasised in our recent Ray of Hope podcast episode, we must balance our fears of COVID- 19 with positivity. Listening to the news can increase anxieties, so we need to be reminded that life will get better. There will be life after COVID-19.

You can find out more about Girl Up Initiative Uganda through our website and by following us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

A Word to Men Ahead of International Women’s Day

Feminists around the world have put endless effort into explaining that International Women’s Day is for all people to fight together for gender equality. And while the statement is true, I don’t believe everyone’s job is the same. Every year, ahead of 8th March, there’s heated debate on men’s role in the gender equality movement. Are they doing enough? Are they doing too much?

These are my reflections for all men willing to listen.

Believe in Feminism

Take part in International Women’s Day because you believe in gender equality. It’s not our duty to make you feel included. It certainly is not our responsibility to convince you to fight for women’s rights. I often struggle to find the correct arguments to get men onboard, or the best feminist angle so as not to offend anyone. But I shouldn’t soften my words for the sake of masculinity.

Know your beliefs and own them. Advocate for women’s rights because you want to. Don’t wait for an invitation. Be a feminist because you see the burden of unbalanced gender dynamics and you want to tackle it.

It’s not just about the Women you Love

Whenever a case of sexual assault or domestic violence occurs, it’s common to hear that “it could have happened to your girlfriend/sister/daughter”. It seems like the offence is aggravated by the victim’s relationship to a man. Sure, we’re someone’s relative or friend but our worth doesn’t rely on this kinship. Before someone’s daughter or sister, we are our own selves. Women are deserving of respect, public presence and integrity because we exist.

Don’t march on International Women’s Day for your mother, daughter, girlfriend, wife, sister or female friends. Forget about the women you love for a second. Get involved for the billions of women you don’t know. This is not about someone close to you suffering, it’s about justice for half the world’s population.

Know your Role and Step Back Sometimes

Being an ally to any cause means acknowledging your privilege, offering support and settling for a secondary role to leave space for others to speak up.

Being an ally to women means understanding men’s role in the movement. While you’re welcome to stand at the very front of a march, think twice: do you really have to be right there? Or are you taking someone else’s place? Feminism wants and needs men to be involved but we don’t need you to lead. We can lead. We don’t need you to give us a voice, but we do need you to shush people when they aren’t listening. Shout with us, not for us.

An effective way to take part in International Women’s Day is to contact feminist organisations and offer to volunteer or make a donation. You can also babysit the children of your female friends or relatives so they can fully commit to the day. In your workplace, support female colleagues, employers and employees if they decide to go on a strike. Campaign on social media, don’t mansplain feminism to women and encourage your male friends to march. But mainly, don’t be scared of calling yourself a feminist – it’s a good thing.

Women’s Rights for Everyone

Gender inequality doesn’t just affect women, and it doesn’t affect all women equally. Working class women, BAME women, trans women, lesbian and bi women, Muslim women, older women, female sex-workers, disabled women, women in non-paid domestic jobs, women who don’t adhere to traditional beauty standards, homeless women, migrant and refugee women… All of us struggle in different ways.

Listen, learn and acknowledge the different ways patriarchy constrains women’s rights. Not all discrimination looks the same. So make sure you don’t assume, judge or take anyone for granted. Every single woman should feel as worthy as everyone else. 

Question Yourself

International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to reflect on the invisibility of everyday sexism. Turn off autopilot and question everything you assume about gender. Work to deconstruct your normalised behaviour and interrogate your day-to-day vocabulary. Likewise, pay close attention to bias that goes unnoticed, like sexist news headlines and misogynist commercials. Take some time to understand the concept of toxic masculinity and how it affects you. Understand that your position as a man might not allow you to witness the whole spectrum of gender discrimination.

Take this opportunity to interrogate your conduct and examine if there’s anything about your actions that could change to achieve a fairer future for everyone. 

March and Be Proud

You’re campaigning for female empowerment, against gender-based violence, for respect and justice, against stereotypes and gender-bias, for full social, political, legal and economic equality and against the othering of women in society. That’s major.

Don’t question your power and feel proud of what we can achieve together.

Has Today’s Feminism Gone Too Far?

A common critique of today’s feminism is that it has ‘gone too far’. Some say that we’ve ‘created’ a gender ideology, that we hate men, that we cook up harassment stories, and that we’re easily offended, angry or radical. Others want to belittle feminism by calling it a fad.

‘Today’s feminism’ implies that, once upon a time, there was a more acceptable, amicable and effective feminist movement. When people criticise ‘today’s feminism’, they assume that ‘yesterday’s feminism’ was preferable. And I wonder, was it?

The first wave of feminism took place between the 19th and early 20th centuries. It focused on achieving women’s suffrage among other basic rights. These feminists were known as the Suffragettes. The right to vote, to property and to divorce may seem like obvious demands now, but they were met with ridicule at the time.

Suffragettes were depicted by media outlets as disgusting, boisterous and radical.

Men who supported them were publicly mocked. Anti-suffragists claimed that women’s ability to vote would grow radicalism, increase domestic terrorism, and generally turn the world on its head.

Anti-Suffragette Cartoon from 1908


A second wave of feminists emerged in the 1960s. These women fought for sexual and reproductive freedom, against strict beauty norms and for their right to work outside the home.

Second wave feminism suffered a tremendous backlash.

Society declared them ‘petty’ for discussing bras and body hair instead of ‘real problems’. Feminists at this time were heavily stereotyped as being humourless, hairy-legged, man-hating and unhappy women. Media outlets censored their fight by using the past tense when referring to feminism and falsely declaring that feminism was ‘dead’.

As a backlash to the backlash, a third wave of feminism sprouted in the 1990s – largely influenced by punk and underground trends. Third-wave feminists fought for social justice and focused on increasing the intersectionality and inclusivity missing from earlier forms of feminism. However, once again, they were demonised with the same arguments: man-hating, ugly, crazy, going too far.

I make these brief historical references to point out that no feminism has ever been fully celebrated. And in the current fourth-wave of feminism, which uses digital tools to strengthen the fight, anti-feminist voices are as loud as ever.

Anti-feminists have been critiquing ‘today’s feminism’ for decades.

Doing so allows them to acknowledge that widely-celebrated changes from the past were good, while simultaneously attempt to halt current and future progress.

Most people today will agree that to vote is a basic right and that women deserve economic independency and sexual agency. But not everyone understands yet that trans women are women, that sexism is an everyday problem and that the pay gap exists.

In 30 years time, we will look back and think of the #MeToo movement as a crucial point on the feminism timeline. It will be recognised as a necessary step on the way to equality – in the same way that no one now doubts that women’s suffrage was worth the fight.

One day in the future, 2019’s feminism will be normalised and seen as worth the fight. But for this to happen, we must never let them tell us that we’ve gone too far.