Just like cows being fattened before being sold, young girls in the West African nation of Mauritania, are fattened before being married.
In a tradition known as Leblouh, girls, some as young as five, are sent to special farms to be groomed for potential suitors. Here older women, known as gaveuses, force-feed them a daily diet of pounded millet mixed with butter and camel’s milk. Daily consumption amounts to some 16,000 calories.
The feeding takes place during school holidays or in the rainy season when milk is plentiful, according to children’s rights lawyer, Fatimata M’baye. According to M’baya, matrons use sticks to roll on the thighs of girls to break down tissue and hasten the process of fattening and attaining female roundness and corpulence. The notion is to marry the girls off as young as possible.
“The girl is sent away from home without understanding why. She suffers but is told that being fat will bring her happiness.
Women’s rights campaigner Mint Ely, says young girls are forced to consume enormous amounts of food, against their will. They are even forced to eat their own vomit, if the food does not stay down.
According to Ely, in the Mauritania society, woman’s size denotes how much space she occupies in her husband’s heart. So, the larger a woman’s size, the lesser chance there is that another woman could claim space in her husband’s heart.
Some assert that the practice of Leboula is on the decline. Health and development consultant Mounina Mint Abdellah, 51, said last year, she was force-fed as a child by her mother’s family. “Things have changed tremendously. Fattening just seems out of date to a large part of Mauritanian society.”
However, campaigners insist the cruel practice of force-feeding young girls for marriage has not really gone away, especially from rural areas.
“I have never managed to bring a case in defense of a force-fed child,” M’baye said. “The politicians are scared of questioning their own traditions. Rural marriages usually take place under customary law or are overseen by a marabou (a Muslim preacher). No state official gets involved, so there is no arbiter to check on the age of the bride.” Yet, she said, Mauritania had signed both international and African treaties protecting the rights of the child.
But Ely and M’baye insist the fat “ideal” is present. Ely cites the life-threatening weight-gain practices of some grown women. “To remain fat, as adults, they take animal hormones or buy prescription drugs with appetite-enhancing side-effects. A woman died in hospital in Nouakchott last week. I’m afraid this problem is still very much with us.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over the next decade, Africa will have the biggest increase in deaths worldwide from chronic diseases. Major ailments include heart disease and diabetes, both linked to nutrition.
According to historians, the practice of as Leblouh dates back to pre-colonial times. Obesity in a woman was viewed as a sign of wealth and prestige. The richer a man, the fewer chores his wife would do.
Fattening of girls and women is practiced beyond Mauritania, in northern Mali, rural Niger and some parts of Nigeria and Cameroon.
By Perviz Walji