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Breast Ironing

Volume 607: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Julian Smith.)

I will start with three letters: FGM. Thanks to the tireless campaigning of charities such as Daughters of Eve and Dahlia, we now know that those letters are an abbreviation for: the abhorrent practice of female genital mutilation. For any colleague who still struggles to understand FGM, I cannot put it in clearer or more stark terms than those used by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias) in her excellent contribution to the recent International Women’s Day debate:

“the equivalent of female genital mutilation in a man would be the removal of the head of the penis and of a third of the shaft.” —[Official Report, 8 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 233.]

FGM was hidden from us for many years, and while this practice did not originate in Britain, we have come to know and tackle it here in the UK. FGM was first legislated on by the UK Government in 1985, at which point the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 made the practice of FGM illegal. In 2003, it became an offence to take a girl abroad for the purpose of FGM. Finally, the Serious Crime Act 2015 took further measures to create a robust legal framework to deal with this abhorrent practice. Thanks to a 30-year journey of revealing and legislating on this barbaric practice, it is now widely recognised. I am ashamed to say, however, that in that 30-year journey, there has not been a single prosecution here in the UK.

It is against the perspective of this lengthy struggle that I wish to raise the issue of breast ironing. It is perhaps unsurprising that so few people have heard of it. Breast ironing—or breast flattening, as it is often referred to—is believed to have originated in Cameroon but is also found in Nigeria, the Republic of Guinea, South Africa, Chad, Togo, Benin, Birmingham and London. It is the practice of pounding the developing breasts of young girls with objects heated over coals or on a stove, and it tends to be performed on girls from about the age of 10 up until the end of puberty. Hot stones, hammers and spatulas are used twice a day for several weeks or months to stop or delay, and in some cases permanently destroy, the natural development of the breast.

Girls subjected to this abuse are told by the perpetrators that it is necessary to continue with this abhorrent practice until it no longer hurts. This gives us some idea of the unimaginable pain and suffering they are subjected to. Breast ironing exposes girls to numerous health issues, such as cancer, abscesses, itching, discharge of milk, infection and asymmetry of the breasts. Girls who undergo breast ironing can expect to experience an increased prevalence of breast cysts, breast infections, severe fever, tissue damage and even the complete disappearance of one or both breasts.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you are probably sitting there, like many other right hon. and hon. Members, thinking, “Why would anyone do this to a young woman or girl?” Breast flattening, or ironing, is carried out by the perpetrators in the belief that it makes girls less sexually attractive to men; in the certainty that mutilation of the breasts will protect young girls from sexual harassment, rape or early forced marriage; and with the confidence that the breasts of young girls can develop only if they think about sex, if a man touches their breasts, if a girl watches pornography or even if a girl visits a night club.

Is it not also the case that some parents believe they can prevent puberty from happening altogether by carrying out breast ironing?

That is the point, but it is a mistaken belief, and one that has no place in any society, let alone ours here in Britain.

The words “culture”, “tradition” or “religion” come up when people try to explain this absurdly harmful practice, but as in the case of FGM, these words are just a thinly veiled excuse for a ritualised form of child abuse.

The hon. Gentleman brought this issue to the House on International Women’s Day. That evening I sponsored an event on domestic violence that was attended by more than 100 people. I had not heard about breast ironing until that day, but FGM and breast ironing, and their prevalence in our society, including here in London, were raised that night. Does he agree that we need zero tolerance when it comes to this practice?

I will come to that. I hope that the Minister will say what steps we can take to send the message out loud and clear from this House of Commons that the practice is completely unacceptable, whether it happens in London, Birmingham or any other city, or whether young girls are being taken to Cameroon, Nigeria or elsewhere for it to be done over the school holidays. No one should think that they can get away with it in this country without fear of prosecution.

I applaud what my hon. Friend says. I was responsible for bringing in the first ever anti-violence against women and girls strategy in London, which looked at some of these issues. The police did something like a cultural cringe when dealing with some of these problems until I highlighted to the commissioner the fact that if little boys were appearing across London on a systematic basis with their little finger missing, we would be doing something about it. I pointed out that because this involved girls, was possibly invisible and had this cultural overlay, the police felt that they should stand off from it. Pleasingly, that is no longer the case, but I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that we could do much more to make the unacceptability of these practices widespread.

I agree absolutely. This idea that puberty, the natural development of a woman’s adult body and the natural journey to maturity can be violated as part of some mistaken or bizarre belief system has no place in our society.

As with FGM, the practice of breast ironing is hidden because it is most often carried out by a family member. A recent UN report revealed that 58% of the perpetrators of breast ironing are the girl’s own mother. Although awareness of FGM is probably at an all-time high, the practice of breast ironing will remain hidden unless we in this House speak out about it wherever we can. Breast ironing has been identified by the UN as one of the five most under-reported crimes relating to gender-based violence. That is why this debate is so important

I said that this practice of breast ironing has been found in Birmingham and London. However, because of the hidden nature of this abuse, it is hard to prove the extent of its prevalence in the UK. In the words of Margaret Nyuydzewira, founder of the UK-based pressure group, CAME:

“Breast ironing is a practice that happens in the privacy of women’s homes, it’s hard to see who is doing it, and people are not willing to talk about it. It’s like female genital mutilation: you know it’s happening but you are not going to see it”.

Despite the secrecy around breast ironing, the anti-FGM campaigner and co-founder of Daughters of Eve, Leyla Hussein, recently revealed she had met a woman in the UK who had undergone breast ironing. Recent press coverage has said that it is endemic and experts believe that the custom is being practised among the several thousand Cameroonians now living in the UK.

CAME has estimated that up to 1,000 girls in the UK have been subjected to breast ironing and that an unknown number have been subjected to it abroad. It highlighted to me one case reported to the police in Birmingham where no further action was taken, as it was put down to being part of someone’s culture rather than a crime.

I am sorry, but I will not, because I must make some progress.

The Mayor of London’s harmful practices taskforce, on which my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) served, described breast ironing as an emerging issue here in the UK. It is precisely the lack of hard facts and figures that has led me to seek this debate on breast ironing and the Government’s response.

It has also led me to do something else. I wrote to every police force in the UK and every local authority in the UK to ask what they were doing about this issue. The police forces that wrote back to me showed real concern. They know that this is a worrying crime and they have a worrying lack of knowledge of it. Some 72% of the police forces that responded either failed to answer a question about breast ironing or admitted that they had never heard of it, while 38% said they wanted more guidance. This demonstrates a lack of understanding among our police forces about breast ironing and the signs that reveal that it is happening. Although some police forces, including West Mercia, Merseyside, Thames Valley and Hertfordshire, are taking encouraging steps to raise awareness, I hope that the Minister will consider issuing guidance from the Department to ensure that this best practice is spread and that those who do not have the information on breast ironing can be enlightened.

I also wrote to representatives of all the local authority children’s services departments. Of those who responded, 23% volunteered the information that they had never undertaken any training in this area, and 65% said that they would like more guidance. Departments in Greater Manchester, Leicester and the City of London are already taking action, but, like the police forces, all the children’s departments in our local authorities want more information. On their own admission, the police and local authorities need further training in dealing with this practice and bringing criminals to prosecution. If we fail to give them the tools that they require to identify and understand the victims of this crime, they will never be able to tackle it.

I understand that there is currently no stand-alone crime of breast ironing in the United Kingdom, and that police and prosecutors have to rely on the existing pool of criminal offences that are available to them. I believe that, as with female genital mutilation, that is not an adequate protection for young women and girls in our country. I pay tribute to the Minister for her work on the Bill that became the Serious Crime Act 2015, which, among other things, provided anonymity for victims of FGM, created a new civil protection order, created a new offence of failing to protect a girl from FGM, provided for statutory guidance, and imposed a duty to report on public sector professionals such as teachers, social workers and doctors. I believe that all those protections should be considered in relation to the crime of breast ironing. I hope that the Minister will consider the creation of a stand-alone offence, and will also extend the protections in the 2015 Act to breast ironing.

As I hope I have demonstrated, this crime is not given the recognition that it needs to be given in our communities here in the United Kingdom. One of the main barriers that I have been able to cite this evening is a lack of awareness among all Government agencies, including police, local authorities and schools. The very people who should be keeping these girls safe do not know what to look for, and, more important, do not know where to look. I ask the Minister to undertake to ensure that the Department gives guidance to those Government agencies on how to spot the girls who are at risk. I also ask her to request the Department to make a thorough study of the prevalence of breast ironing in the UK. If we are to tackle this crime, we must find out where it is taking place and how many people are victims of it.

Yesterday, a colleague asked me why I, as a man, had chosen to speak about breast ironing. The answer is simple. If we in the House of Commons fail to act, if we fail to speak out about this horrendous and abhorrent crime, it is we who are letting young girls and women down here in our country. Unless we speak out and raise the profile of breast ironing, the hidden suffering of young teenage girls will always remain hidden.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) on securing a debate about an important issue on which he has previously been campaigning. He should be assured that the fact that the subject is on the Order Paper has really made people sit up and listen today. I had to explain to a number of colleagues what this evening’s Adjournment debate was about, and the utter horror on each and every face when they understood is testimony to the importance of the debate and the fact that my hon. Friend has secured it.

One of my hon. Friend’s final points related to men raising these matters. These are not just women’s issues. This is violence against women and girls—some of it is perpetrated by men and some by women—but we need men to speak out and make it clear that these practices are unacceptable. The excuse given for FGM, breast ironing and other so-called honour-based violence is that men require it, and that it has to happen to women so that men will accept them. That is simply not true, and men need to speak out and make it clear that that is not the case. I congratulate my hon. Friend and the other men who have spoken in the debate, as well as the women who have contributed. It is important that we all speak on this matter.

I want to make it absolutely clear that breast ironing is not just an abhorrent practice; it is illegal. It is child abuse, and no political or cultural sensitivities should ever be used as an excuse for us to stop tackling it. As my hon. Friend has noted, there are parallels between breast ironing and other harmful practices such as FGM. One such parallel is the fact that these practices are often hidden crimes, which makes it difficult for us to estimate their prevalence. We want to find the victims of these crimes and we want to stop the crimes happening, but we will be able to do that only if people and communities are brave enough to speak out and say that the practice is unacceptable. It is also the responsibility of the police proactively to look for these crimes and to devise and implement measures to increase the confidence of victims to report them and to give evidence.

As this practice is predominantly carried out during puberty when the girls are at school, should we not be educating them about it within the school system in the United Kingdom? Would that not encourage them to come forward?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I work closely with Ministers in the Department for Education to ensure that guidance material is available to enable schools to teach people about this. I will say more about that shortly. However, I know that certain professionals might feel reticent about the subject. They might feel that cultural sensitivities are involved or that there are political reasons why they should not go there. That is simply not the case, however, and we need to give those professionals the confidence to know that this is something they should be looking for, to know what the signs are and to take action. That is what we all need to do.

I completely agree with the Minister. I wonder whether her Department, or indeed the police, might look at the French experience, which has involved a significant number of prosecutions and convictions, particularly for FGM but also for other harmful cultural practices. My hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) made the point that one of the difficulties that the police sometimes face from a cultural point of view is that the perpetrator is often a family member. So we may well be prosecuting granny and putting her in prison, but even that is no excuse, and we need to lock some of these people up, if only to send a signal.

Let me address the point about convictions. My hon. Friend makes the point that France and other countries have had successful prosecutions resulting in convictions, but we have to accept that there are different legal systems involved. It is also worth making the point that although FGM was first made a crime in 1985, the Crown Prosecution Service did not receive a single referral of a case that it might have been able to take to prosecution before 2010. That is why the organisations and community groups that work on this are very important, and we have to work with them at a community level. What my hon. Friend says is true: victims of FGM might have to give evidence in court against a family member.

We are sometimes asked why we cannot just go ahead and get a conviction, if we know that a crime has happened. Well, there are plenty of unsolved murders. There might be a body, and we might know that someone has been murdered, but we cannot necessarily get the evidence we need. This is about equipping the police, law enforcement agencies and other professionals with the tools that they need to gather the necessary evidence, information and intelligence. Like my hon. Friend, I want to see a conviction for this. We have had a successful conviction for forced marriage, and I want to see a conviction for FGM, but we all have to acknowledge and respect the difficulties involved in getting such a conviction.

It is important to remember that a conviction is in many ways a failure—a crime has happened. The more that we can do to prevent the crime from happening in the first place and to make it clear that the practice is illegal and therefore should not happen, the better the result will be. Where this crime does occur, we want to ensure that the law enforcement response is as robust as possible.

I want to discuss with my hon. Friend his thoughts about legislation, but let me be clear that breast ironing is against the law today. Although there are no specific offences, the police have a range of other offences at their disposal to deal with any cases that they encounter, including common assault, actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm, child cruelty and causing or allowing a child to suffer serious physical harm. The Crown Prosecution Service takes seriously the effective prosecution of all forms of honour-based violence. In 2014-15, 225 defendants were prosecuted in cases flagged as having an honour-based violence component, a rise from 206 in the previous year, with 129 convictions—the highest ever recorded. However, it is true that we want more convictions. This debate can send a message to law enforcement and the CPS that we want the offence to get more attention.

In December, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary published its review of the police response to honour-based violence. The review found some areas of good practice, but also raised serious concerns about the police’s handling of such issues. I stress again that honour-based violence is a crime. The so-called honour-based context—there is no honour in any of these crimes—does not prevent it from being a crime. HMIC’s report showed that the police were not bringing to bear some offences, such as domestic abuse or child abuse. We are working closely with HMIC, considering the report’s findings, and working with police forces, the national policing lead and the College of Policing to ensure that we get the right guidance. That means further work and training to help to increase the understanding of crimes such as breast ironing.

On mandatory reporting, my hon. Friend talked about the measures that we introduced in the Serious Crime Act 2015 regarding FGM, which we know are working. I had an email from my county council in Staffordshire only today saying that an FGM protection order had been put on a baby. It is absolutely fantastic that the orders are being used in practice and preventing this dreadful crime from taking place. We placed a mandatory reporting duty on professionals who are aware of FGM cases involving girls aged under 18. We are also committed to consulting on a mandatory reporting duty for all child abuse, and that consultation will start shortly. The consultation is broad and wide ranging. We are looking at various measures, including a mandatory duty to report all forms of child abuse. We will consider all responses, and I encourage anybody who is listening to this debate to make sure that they feed into that consultation.

Before I wrap up, let me mention the work that we are doing internationally. We know that cases of breast ironing have been documented in Cameroon and other parts of Africa. In Cameroon, the British High Commission has been working closely with the Minister of Women’s Empowerment and the Family in co-ordination with local religious leaders on campaigns to raise awareness and to support a community-led change to end breast ironing.

My hon. Friend will know that last year the Prime Minister appointed my noble friend Baroness Verma as ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls overseas. I work closely with her to ensure that we are doing all that we can not only in this country, but in countries where we know that there is a high prevalence, or a higher prevalence, of such practice. We need to tackle harmful practice overseas. I have met some fantastic charities that work with communities and stand up and say that this practice is wrong. They also try to get villages and tribes to say that it is wrong, because if they do that, the next village will follow. Fantastic work is being done.

There is always more that we can do. I am conscious of time, so I will finish by thanking my hon. Friend for securing this debate and commending the work that is being done by many organisations, particularly CAME women and Girls Development Organisation, to bring hidden practices, such as breast ironing, to the fore.

My hon. Friend has done a great service. He has raised awareness of this practice in a way that one is able to do in this Chamber. Sometimes we underestimate the power an Adjournment debate in this place to raise awareness of an issue. Let me reiterate that what we are talking about is illegal. It is a crime and it is not acceptable. I want to assure the House that the Government fully understand that and are absolutely committed to putting a stop to it.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.