Witchcraft and breast flattening

Know the warning signs of these harmful practices

Read time: 5 minutes

Witchcraft and exorcism

Witchcraft is the belief that a child is able to use an evil force to harm others.

Spirit Possession is the belief that an evil force has entered the child and is controlling them.

Exorcism is the attempt to expel evil spirits from a child:

“…he asked my mother to stitch up a doll with black cloth um, and when he was at the house he was basically like ‘you need to all just cut each nail from your fingers and your toes, give it to me, cut a bit of your hair, give it to me, give me each of your clothing like pants, t-shirt, bottoms, whatever, and give it to me’. He had a guy with him and they went to a crematorium once they had it. They put everything in the whole bag, even the doll, and did something…”

Children are often taken abroad to receive exorcisms, as sometimes this is seen as more powerful. Some churches involved are run online.

Online resources are also used by the families to find “help and information”, or a spiritual diagnosis.

Phones will be used to communicate both locally and internationally.

Exorcism is seen by many as a family issue and is often fed by negative experiences from overseas, or used as a means to rally “help”, which can include violence.

Child abuse linked to faith or belief, such as exorcism and witchcraft, is not confined to one faith, nationality, ethnic group or community.

Most of the indicators may appear similar to other types of maltreatment:

  • A child’s body showing signs or marks, such as bruises or burns, from physical abuse
  • A child becoming noticeably confused, withdrawn, disorientated or isolated and appearing alone among other children
  • A child’s personal care deteriorating, for example through a loss of weight, being hungry, turning up to school without food or food money or being unkempt with dirty clothes and even faeces smeared on to them
  • It may also be directly evident that the child’s parent does not show concern for or a close bond with them
  • A child’s attendance at school becoming irregular, or being taken out of school altogether without another school place having been organised
  • A child reporting that they are or have been accused of being evil, and/or that they are having the devil beaten out of them

Barriers to Disclosure:

  • Language Barriers
  • Immigration Concerns
  • Lack of knowledge regarding community support systems
  • Cultural insensitivity in mainstream programmes
  • Those with collectivist values are less likely to disclose, for fear of shame or insult
  • Children don’t always recognise this as a form of abuse; those who do tell tend to do so to an educational professional
  • Those who speak to immediate family members may be given “rationalisations” for this, or be asked to keep quiet to avoid immigration concerns

More information about all forms of abuse linked to faith or belief can be found on the National FGM Centre website.

Breast ironing and flattening

Breast ironing or breast flattening is the process during which young pubescent girls’ breasts are ironed, massaged, flattened and/or pounded down over a period of time (sometimes years) in order for the breasts to disappear, or to delay the development of the breasts.

In many cases the abuser, usually the mother or a senior female family member, believes that a flattened breast will deter unwanted attention and therefore prevent an unwanted pregnancy and rape.

Breast flattening usually starts with the first signs of puberty, which can be as young as nine years old, and is usually carried out by female relatives.

Warning signs that a young girl is at risk of breast ironing/flattening:

  • A girl is embarrassed about her body
  • A girl is born to a woman who has undergone breast flattening
  • A girl has an older sibling or cousin who has undergone breast flattening
  • If there are references to breast flattening in conversation, a girl may tell other children about it
  • A girl may request help from a teacher or another adult if she is aware or suspects that she is at immediate risk
  • A girl from an affected community is withdrawn from PSHE and/or sex and relationship education as her parents wish to keep her uninformed about her rights
  • One or both parents or elder family members consider breast flattening integral to their cultural identity
  • The family indicate that there are strong levels of influence held by elders who are involved in bringing up female children and support breast flattening
  • A girl/family has a limited level of integration within the UK community

Warning signs a girl is currently undergoing this:

  • A girl may disclose to a teacher, social worker, GP or another medical professional
  • Some girls may ask for help, or perhaps talk about pain or discomfort in their chest area, but may not be explicit about the problem due to embarrassment or fear
  • A girl may display reluctance to undergo medical examinations
  • A girl may be fearful of changing for physical activities due to scars showing or bandages being visible

More information about breast flattening and/or ironing can be found on the National FGM Centre website.

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