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“We grab them and we force them to eat. If they cry a lot we leave them sometimes for a day or two and then we come back to start again. They get used to it in the end.”

For decades Mauritanian women and girls have done the opposite of the western women who see being skinny as beauty. Leblouh or gavage that is traced back to the 11th century, is the practice of force-feeding of young women including girls as young as 5 because obesity was regarded as desirable. They overfed the girls to show family wealth and find a husband. According to Mauritanian stereotypes; men want women to be fat while women prefer the men to be skinny.

The practice was known as gavages, a French term for force-feeding geese to obtain foie gras. Girls as young as 5 and as old as 19 had to drink up to five gallons of fat-rich camel’s or cows milk daily, aiming for silvery stretch marks on their upper arms. Girls aged barely ten years old were fed kg of fine couscous or millet mixed with generous helpings of butter; they were also required to drink up to 20 liters of milk daily with the aid of a funnel placed in their mouths.

The families would also force the girls to eat cream, butter, couscous and other calorie-rich food. If a girl refused or vomited, the village weight-gain specialist might squeeze her foot between sticks, pull her ear, pinch her inner thigh, bend her finger backward or force her to drink her own vomit. In extreme cases, girls would die. Certain women have even used drugs for increasing animal weight to achieve the feminine ideal.


Fortunately this practice is in the process of disappearing and in these recent years, television commercials and official workers has promoted the message that being fat can lead to diabetes, heart problems, high blood pressure and other serious diseases. Unfortunately it takes longer to get the message out since ¾ of Mauritanian women does not watch television and listen to radio. Today, force feeding persists in rural areas where women are less educated and doesn’t have access to television.

A survey done in 2001 including 68,000 women showed that 1 in 5 aged between 15 and 49 had been deliberately overfed and 70% especially teenagers said they didn’t regret it. The same survey did also document that 2 in 5 women were overweight.

This clearly shows that over feeding of girls is no longer considered a good thing in Mauritanian society, especially by educated young women and in recent years, women’s civil society groups have held several conferences and workshops. The men are also fed up with fat women and many girls prefer to have a natural weight by simply eating normal.

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