In West Africa’s rural Mauritania, women are risking their lives to marry. Men want their brides fat – a symbol of beauty and wealth. That has led to the dangerous tradition of force-feeding, or leblouh, where young Mauritanian girls are force-fed large quantities of food to gain weight for marriage.
A Dangerous Diet
A six-year old’s typical diet includes two kilos of carbs, two cups of butter, and almost 20 litres of milk. Other reports reveal girls being forced to consume two buckets of porridge and couscous per day.
They also detail physical punishment that is used to ensure food is eaten, such as forcing girls to eat their own vomit, and squeezing their toes between sticks to cause great pain.
Human-rights activists have repeatedly protested against the practice. They warn it can leave girls with diabetes, hypertension or heart disease – for life.
Already, eight-year-old girls can weigh over 100kg after force-feeding, with young women tipping the scales at twice the size. Their weight puts a strain on the heart, endangering their health.
Hospital authorities also paint a stark picture of the consequences of leblouh. They record daily hospitalisations from this practice.
But awareness campaigns urging a stop to force-feeding have gone unheeded.
Part of the Tradition
The messages have failed to reach the country’s rural areas due to lack of access, where activists say almost 75% of girls are forcibly fattened.
That includes reaching out to the so-called ‘Fatteners’- the women who enable the practice.
These ‘Fatteners’ also resort to using hormones or appetite-inducing drugs to maintain weight.
But such hormones are typically used in animals – such as fattening geese to produce foie gras, and are harmful to humans. Reports show that women who take them end up with a disproportionate body – a big stomach, face and breasts but thin limbs.
Like the men, the ‘Fatteners’ are usually from Mauritania’s older generation and believe that being thin is unappealing, and being fat is a sign of great wealth.
The thinking has its roots in Mauritania’s pre-colonial period, where its population consisted of lowly, white Moor Arabs. In those times, a Mauritanian man was seen as rich and respected if his wives did not engage in housework. That led to their wives gradually gaining weight.
Of its 3.2 million people, one-third of Mauritania’s population belongs to the Moor tribe. Overtime, the practice became a culture, and force-feeding was linked to beauty and marriage.
A survey previously done by Mauritania’s health ministry found that 11% of young girls are force-fed.
Today, the younger generation of Mauritania girls are rejecting the culture.
That is partly because they are looking for work in the city, and feel that being heavy would hamper their movement.
Observers believe the influence of western pop culture also reduced the appeal of bigger bodies.
Now the Mauritanian government has ratified almost all conventions that discriminate against women, but rights-groups say enforcement is still lacking.
What do you think about the practice? Is it culture or cruelty? Comment below.