Bad Cultures: Force-feeding young girls for marriage in Mauritania

In my previous blog post, I’ve talked about the practice of sexual cleansing among young girls in Malawi. Sexual cleansing, unfortunately, is only a small fraction of a much bigger problem that persists in Africa. More than religion, cultural practices and traditions have a bigger impact on many African societies. Africa is a deeply patriarchal society and most traditional African practices are generally biased against women. Therefore, it is no surprise that many of the Harmful Traditional Practices (HTPs) are targeted against women. In this post, I will shed more light onto this gender-insensitive issue and why it is still prevalent in today’s modern world. Since it is almost impossible to write about everything that is wrong with these harmful traditional practices, I will focus on the practice of leblouh or gavage in Mauritania, and use it as an example. 

A “fattener” shown forcefully feeding a young girl as she squeezes her feet between two sticks.

Leblouh refers to the practice of force-feeding young girls for marriage. Heavier girls and women are viewed as beautiful, wealthy and socially-accepted while their slimmer counterparts are considered inferior and bring shame on their families in Mauritanian society. In Mauritanian culture, being thin is unappealing. A fat girl symbolizes wealth and social class. This practice, also known as gavage, dates back to a time when Mauritania’s population consisted of lowly, white Moor Arabs. Back then, a Mauritanian man was considered wealthy and well-respected if his wives did not engage in housework. Since they spent most of their time just sitting and being lazy by not doing any work, these wives gradually gained weight. Of its 3.2 million people, one-third of Mauritania’s population belongs to the Moor tribe. Overtime, being overweight became culturally acceptable.

Girls as young as five years old are sent to fattening farms in Mauritania where they are forced to consume thousands of calories each day. These “fat camps” are run by elderly women known as “fatteners” whose main goals is to ensure these little girls are fed as many calories as possible in order to gain weight. In an interview with CNN correspondent Mohamed Yahya Abdul Wedoud, Mariam Mint Ahmed, who is 25, shares her experience with the leblouh practice. She recalls that girls who don’t finish the fattening meals put before them can be punished. One method, according to Mint Ahmed, is to tie a girl’s toes to sticks and if she does not eat, pressure is applied to the sticks sending shockwaves of pain through the girl’s feet. These girls were force-fed a whole foods diet of up to 16,000 calories, sometimes to the point of nausea and vomiting. They would eat four meals a day. For breakfast, the girls have breadcrumbs soaked in olive oil washed down with camel’s milk. They then have frequent meals throughout the day of goat’s meat, bread, figs and couscous, all with more camel milk to drink. After being force-fed, the girls would not be allowed to move or engage in any kind of exercise, and must rest instead.

Foot of a young girl being squeezed between two sticks as a form of punishment for refusing to consume more food.
Foot of a young girl being squeezed between two sticks as a form of punishment for refusing to consume more food.

According to a study conducted in 2008 by the Mauritanian Minister of Social Affairs, about 20% of Mauritanian women either voluntarily participate, or are forced to participate in the practice of force-feeding. There are obviously many health risks that follow the unhealthy weight gain of these girls. Girls of around eight can weigh 140kg (300lb) after force feeding, putting a huge strain on their hearts and jeopardising their health. Young women can tip the scales at 200kg. According to a study conducted by the World Health Organization, about 20 percent of females in Mauritania are obese, compared to 4 percent of men. 

Besides health risks caused by obesity, there seems to be a new practice called “chemical gavage” where girls are given drugs including growth hormones, contraceptives and corticoids – steroid hormones – to bulk up. Health risks include heart failure, renal failure, diabetes, reproductive health problems, and joint pain. Since the process of ingesting food seemed to be a major difficulty, taking pills became a much easier way to gain weight. The animal growth hormones end up giving the women who take them a disproportionate body shape with a big stomach, face and breasts but thin arms and legs.

Leblouh is intimately linked to early or child marriage and often involves a girl of five, seven or nine being obliged to eat excessively to achieve female roundness and corpulence, so that she can be married off as young as possible. The weight gain is believed to accelerate puberty and make younger girls appear more womanly.

Though still active, this practice of force-feeding girls is becoming old-fashioned. A study by the Mauritanian ministry of health has found that force-feeding is dying out. Now only 11% of young girls are force fed. Dr. Sidi Ahmed, a heart disease specialist at Nouakchott’s Sabah hospital says, “We have launched several campaigns aimed at putting an end to this mentality that links beauty and fat, which brings some people to review their customs and traditions.” 

Nearly 40% of women and 55% of men reported that gavage has no advantages. The most common reason given to not practicing gavage was improved health. In contrast, approximately a quarter of both men (23%) and women (25%) cited no disadvantages with the practice of gavage. Among respondents with at least one daughter, 17% of women and 11% of men reported the intention to practice gavage. The most important differences in attitude toward the continuation of gavage were observed among women and among men from different ethnic groups, with Arabs more likely to approve of the continuation of gavage.  

Stretch marks are a major turn-on for Mauritanian men.

The practice of leblouh is most prevalent among Arab women. Therefore, these Arab women could benefit from increased awareness and education related to the public health and psychological dangers that these practices pose. However, more importantly, the men in these societies that practice gavage should change their perception of the ideal Mauritanian wife. Once the men no longer find overweight women attractive, it will be easier for this practice to die out. It is this constant need to please and attract the males that puts the pressures on females, causing them to undergo customs and traditions that are actually harmful to them in many ways.

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