Cruelty or Cultural?: The Practice of Force-Feeding in Mauritania

It is hardly uncommon to hear girls from many parts of the globe being obsessed with losing weight, because to some, that is the definition of beauty. However, the Mauritanians have a different story of their own to tell where obesity is a sign of beauty.

With this, The Gryphon endeavours to dig deeper into the bizarre tradition of force-feeding and to shed light upon the pain inflicted onto the Mauritanian girls.

There, the layers of stomach flab cascade, the thighs overlap and the neck is suffocated with thick ripples of fat, this is the epitome of beauty to the Mauritanians. The plights of Mauritanian girls begin at ripe young ages where the tradition of ‘Leblouh’ is forced upon these girls. This ethos is rooted in the belief that girls of bigger sizes symbolize prestige and wealth. To the Mauritanians, being thin is unappealing and signifies inferiority and shame. ‘Leblouh’ is a practice of grooming girls by force-feeding them gargantuan amounts of food in order to make them more attractive and desirable, and hence, heightening their likelihood of securing a male suitor.

Young girls are constantly being convinced and influenced that bigger is better and to believe that men will desire them if they are as big as balloons. The culture behind the West African nation is that girls as young as 5 are taken to a camp during the “feeding season” to be force-fed by elderly ladies although most of the time they are their own mothers. They spend 2 months in a tent gorging down up to 16,000 calories a day worth of sweetened camel milk, porridge, couscous, goat meat and so on. At times where there is a shortage of food, mothers will resort to adding chemicals which are specifically designed to fatten animals, engendering major health issues upon the girls. Each day, they are being forced to consume more than 4 meals causing them to be in immense pain and discomfort. But, the pain does not merely end there. Even when their tummies are full to the brim and they can no longer consume any more, they will be caned or tied up if they are too strong. They are not allowed to throw up or they will be forced to eat their own vomit. Even when food is at an abundance, some family members will go without food to ensure that the girls consume as much as possible.

For breakfast, the girls have to force down 3,000 calories of a litre of sweetened camel’s milk, porridge and couscous which takes them 3 hours. After just over an hour’s break, they are then served another 4,000 calories for lunch. During the day, they are stuffed with pounded millet mixed with water and 2 cups of butter. Their evening meal brings them to a whopping 9,000 calories in total which is equivalent to 30 cheeseburgers. It is an ultimate nightmare for these children. After each meal, the girls are not even allowed to engage in any physical activity and must rest instead.

Some parts of Africa are deeply patriarchal society, embedded with traditional practices which are generally biased against women. While it is not wrong that Mauritanian men do lust for corpulent women, that is where the root of the epidemic lies. A Mauritanian man revealed that they prefer large women because “they are more comfortable during sex”. The practice stems from the mindset of the Mauritanians that have been ingrained in them the need to succumb to the desires of men, regardless of whether this culture of force-feeding is replete with pain and torture on the young girls and not to mention the ensuing health issues that these girls will be facing. Girls around the the age of 8 can tip the scale at about 140kg after being force fed. The excessive eating can jeopardise the girl’s health, causing severe, long term health risks such as diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure.

Girls are often repeatedly intoxicated with teachings of how inferior they are compared to men and that this is the only option in order to appear desirable for men, get married and lead a successful, wealthy life. The matter exacerbates when mothers themselves do not see the harm in this, physically and mentally, that they are inflicting upon their daughters. Despite the severe health issues, they are adamant that these practices are for their daughters’ own benefit and are determined that marrying them off at such young ages ensures them comfortable and thriving lives.

In fact, the practice of ‘Leblouh’ is closely attached to another abominable practice which is child marriage. Girls as young as 12 are getting espoused to much older men and getting pregnant only a few years after the underage marriage. Although these are regarded to be traditions and common norms in some cultures, there is no denying that the practices are absolutely flawed in every way and are pure restrictions to children’s rights. The children are being put through a great degree of pain throughout the few months of force-feeding and nothing would be able to atone for the years of life-long health issues and mental damage which the children have suffered. As these children are being poisoned by such brain-washing toxic beliefs, the ripple continues in the practice of Leblouh with the children and mothers failing to understand the extreme harm the tradition brings upon a child, both physically and mentally. We need to battle against such abominable traditions, advocating our support against such practices of force-feeding and child marriage.

Andrea Kong