According to the 2008 Ministry of Social Affairs Study (2) , it is estimated that close to 20% of women are force-fed in Mauritania, either voluntarily or by coercion . It is one of the only countries where girls, on average, receive more food than boys. Mauritanian women have traditionally desired to be heavy but their norms seem to be changing due to increasing awareness about the health risks associated with obesity. Northern Mali and rural Niger are also thought to commonly engage in the practice.
The history behind force-feeding
Being thin is associated with poverty in Mauritania; therefore weight is used as a measure of one's wealth. Historians believe that the practice dates back to the pre-colonial era when White Moor Arabs were nomads. During this time, it was thought that “the richer the man, the less his wife would do” - the preference was for her to sit still all day in her tent while her black slaves saw to household chores (3). A woman is therefore desirable and eligible for a husband, only if her body is large.
Mothers and grandmothers are often the ones who start the force-feeding process. Many do not see the practice as cruel, but as an essential part of finding their daughter or granddaughter a suitor (4). The bigger the girl, the older and wealthier she looks and the sooner she can be married. Women in Mauritania are viewed as the property of men and the bigger the woman, the more likely a man is to be attracted to her, as her excess weight will exemplify his wealth. That is, the fatter the woman, the richer the man seems.
The practice is more popular among rural communities where people are often unaware of the adverse side-effects attached to obesity. Educational campaigns have little access to these areas, so girls easily fall victim to social pressure from both their families and friends. They continue the custom when they are older, but a trend of resistance has emerged among more educated women.
How do you force girls to eat?
Force-feeding, otherwise known as leblouh , is forced on girls from as young as five. Girls are sent to “fattening farms” (5) during their school holidays where they undergo hours of feeding before being told to sleep. This is done until the girl has developed wings of fat around her abdomen, arms and thighs. Stretch-marks are considered extremely beautiful and when a girl is covered in them she will easily find a husband. Mothers and grandmothers will cross sticks around the girl's ankles or toes and squeeze the ends until the girl screams, at which point food is thrown down her throat. Girls are fed anywhere up to 20 litres of milk a day, as well as copious amounts of couscous mixed with generous quantities of butter (6). If girls induce vomiting or vomit because they cannot eat anymore, they are forced to eat their vomit, so that they are less likely to vomit again. Sticks are rolled on the girl's thighs to break down the tissue in the muscle and speed up fattening. “A successful fattening process will see a 12-year-old weigh 80kg,” (7) resulting in her looking twice her age and therefore, also easier to marry off at this young age.
Mauritanians - like the rest of the world - have felt the effects of growing food prices which has resulted in women making use of other means to gain weight. Many will buy exorbitant amounts of steroids that are designed for cattle, which results in the girls putting on the “necessary” weight, however, the effects of such drugs are even more dangerous than that of force-feeding.
Obesity has a variety of severe effects, including serious cardiovascular problems, hypertension, diabetes and death. Women in Mauritania are dying at ages as young as 40 due to complications related to their weight. Overweight women's pregnancies are also complicated and the unborn babies suffer, too (8). Girls experience intolerable aches and discomfort and many are unable to partake in sports at school. The risks associated with obesity are enormous, however, the danger attached to taking cattle steroids in order to get obese are even larger. Women who take these steroids could face imminent death and the steroids can result in an onset of renal failure and heart attack.
Beyond the health risks, the human rights of children are undermined in Mauritania as they undergo hours of torture and pain. According to Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” (9) A children's rights lawyer in Mauritania, Fatimata M'baye, says that she has been unable to bring a case of a force-fed child to the court's attention because “the politicians are scared of questioning their own traditions.” (10) Marriages take place under customary law and are overseen by a Muslim preacher (marabou). Children are married underage but no officials are involved in the marriage ceremony and are therefore unable to regulate the process.
The state of Mauritania has recognised force-feeding as a problem. The Mauritanian Government, together with the United Nations Population Fund (UNPFA), will launch a programme to combat the force-feeding phenomenon and raise awareness of its dangers in 2010. The programme will be funded by the Spanish Government. The National Centre of Cardiology Care, opened in March 2009, will also embark on an educational campaign. The main challenge is making sure that these programmes and campaigns reach rural areas, because they are the hardest hit by the phenomenon.
Previous awareness campaigns have had an impact on women in urban areas, which may be the reason for a slight decrease in force-feeding practices there. Many of the campaigns target schools and teach young girls about the dangers associated with obesity. This may not be the most effective strategy, however, as most girls are forced to eat against their will. Despite several documentaries and radio programmes that have been launched to raise awareness, sponsored by non-profit advocacy groups, many middle-class Mauritanians believe that leblouh no longer exists which means that knowledge of the plight of many women in the country is not being covered enough by the Mauritanian media.
Many Mauritanians are now exposed to images of Lebanese pop stars and Hollywood movies which have, to some extent, also started to alter men's and women's perceptions of beauty. Nonetheless, 20% of women in Mauritania still risk their lives and health to attain the obese aesthetic.
Although the number of women that practice force-feeding has decreased, more needs to be done to ensure that awareness campaigns are reaching rural areas and that they are falling on the right ears. Knowledge and education are the only tools available to tackle deeply entrenched beliefs. Women across the world hurt themselves or take part in unhealthy practices to achieve a certain level of perceived beauty. It is difficult to call on international assistance to help with this issue.
That said, the international community as well as the Mauritanian Government should fight and penalise people for the torture that young girls are put through due to the fact that their basic human rights are being breached. In order to counteract the practice, doctrines such as the Convention of the Rights of the Child should be used to hold people accountable. The judicial system needs to be improved in Mauritania by bringing marriages under judicial control, or at least insisting that an official is present to ensure that girls are not married off from a young age. Merely telling people about the consequences of their infliction may not be enough - people need to be held liable for force-feeding children and the under-aged marriage that often accompanies this practice.
(2) Mauritania: Force-feeding on decline, but more dangerous. http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?ReportId=85036 .
(3) Girls being force-fed for marriage as fattening farms revived . http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/01/mauritania-force-feeding-marriage .
(4) Force-feeding a scourge among Mauritian nomads. http://www.bio-medicine.org/medicine-news/Force-feeding-a-Scourge-Among-Mauritanian-Nomads-20328-1 .
(6) Mauritania: Health Advocates Decry Force-feeding of Girls. http://0-proquest.umi.com.ujlink.uj.ac.za/pqdweb?index=0&did=1277283051&SrchMode=1&sid=1&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1248616225&clientId=57200 .
(7) Girls being force-fed for marriage as fattening farms revived. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/01/mauritania-force-feeding-marriage .
(8) Mauritania: Health Advocates Decry Force-feeding of Girls. http://0-proquest.umi.com.ujlink.uj.ac.za/pqdweb?index=0&did=1277283051&SrchMode=1&sid=1&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1248616225&clientId=57200 .
(9) Universal Declaration of Human Rights. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr .
(10) Girls being force-fed for marriage as fattening farms revived. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/01/mauritania-force-feeding-marriage .