The United Kingdom has witnessed a rise in the number of girls being forced to undergo breast-ironing in order to protect them from unwanted male attention, sexual harassment and rape, The Guardian reported on Saturday. The practice, prevalent in Africa, involves ironing a girl’s chest with a hot stone to slow down breast formation.

Mothers consider it a traditional measure to protect girls from unwanted male attention, sexual harassment and rape. The United Nations has described the practice as one of the five global under-reported crimes relating to gender-based violence. Medical experts and victims say it could lead to physical and psychological wounds, infections, an inability to breastfeed, and breast cancer.

Community workers in London, Yorkshire, Essex and the West Midlands reported several cases in which pre-teen girls from the African diaspora were subjected to breast-ironing. Margaret Nyuydzewira, who heads the diaspora group Came Women and Girls Development Organisation, said at least 1,000 women and girls in the UK had been subjected to the practice.

Nyuydzewira herself was subjected to breast-ironing as a young girl.

An unidentified community activist said she was aware of 15-20 recent cases in Croydon alone. Croydon, located south of the capital, is the largest borough in London with respect to population.

“Breast-ironing is usually done in the UK, not abroad like female genital mutilation,” said the activists. “Sometimes they do it once a week, or once every two weeks, depending on how it comes back.”

British-Somali psychotherapist Leyla Hussein, who also campaigns against female genital cutting, said she spoke to five women in her north London clinic who had been victims of breast-ironing. “They were all British women, all British citizens,” she said.

Jennifer Miraj, a former nurse who worked in hospitals in Essex, Glasgow, Birmingham and London until 2015, said she had come across confirmed cases of breast-ironing in approximately 15 adults and eight girls. “I took care of a young 10-year-old girl who had an infection, which had been going on for a few years from ironing,” she said.

No cases of breast-ironing have been reported to the police so far, although they suspect the practice continues. “Prosecutions are really important,” said Inspector Allen Davis from the Metropolitan Police. “People have to recognise these practices for what they are – child abuse.”