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In Mauritania, almost a quarter of women (23%) report being force fed as a child. In an effort to make pre-pubescent girls look more eligible on the marriage market, families force feed the girls thousands of calories a day during the so-called ‘feeding season’.
Despite long-term health risks including diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure, poor and nomadic families in this part of Northwest Africa are most likely to partake in the ritual known as gavage; the same French terms used to describe fattening geese to produce foie gras.
Tahyeh, a Mauritanian nomad, has set up camp and is now preparing the first of five meals of the day for her 11-year-old daughter, Mone.
Generous heaps of crushed dates, camel milk, couscous, and greasy rice are on the menu.
By the end of breakfast, Mone is expected to have consumed 3,000 calories.
“[I want her to have] a long life, to be beautiful, to be fat and to marry. Have her own home and children, like me,” Tahyeh says.
A new beauty
Thirty-seven per cent of girls are married before the age of 18, and girls from the region’s poorest households are almost twice as likely to marry young than those living in affluent regions of the country.
Force feeding the girls and the consequent weight gain also leads to early onset puberty in girls.
“A woman needs to fill her clothes. A woman needs to be fat. A man should be skinny,” says Tahyeh.
Ignoring the health risks
“We heard doctors are saying that it causes diseases but it’s what we do,” Tahyeh adds.
While drought has left many families short of food to fatten girls, some are turning to ‘chemical gavage’, with girls buying drugs such as corticoids – steroid hormones – to get bigger, sometimes with fatal consequences.
Although only pharmacies are allowed to sell these drugs, they are secretly sold in the capital’s street markets, and are increasingly used without any consultation.
Meriem Ivecou says her daughter took a steroid meant for animals when she was going through gavage.
“I told her not to use it but she didn’t listen,” Ms Ivecou says. “Her belly swelled up like a balloon.”
The next day Ezza died.
For men like community leader Abu Bakri, the reasoning behind the dangerous beauty ideals is simple.
“A fat woman is the one a man prefers,” he says.
“If she’s not fat, I wouldn’t be with her because fat women are more comfortable during sex … For Mauritanian men, fat women are more desirable than skinny ones.”