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Women fight Mauritania's fattening tradition

By Mohamed Yahya Abdel Wedoud, for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obesity is traditionally a sign of beauty and wealth in Mauritania
  • Girls are force-fed to bulk up but some are fighting the tradition called leblouh
  • U.N. says leblouh can mean girls being forced to eat chemicals used to fatten animals
  • The practice maintains a grip in rural areas but less so in cities

Nouakchott, Mauritania (CNN) -- Young Mauritanian girls are traditionally force-fed and fattened for the sake of beauty and marriage, but now some are fighting the tradition, saying it's dangerous to their health.

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.

It is this shame that has helped keep leblouh -- or forced-fattening -- in practice.

Mariam Mint Ahmed, 25, says it's time leblouh was consigned to history.

"It is our responsibility as a young generation to put an end to the custom that threatens our lives," Mint Ahmed, a married trader who lives in the capital Nouakchott, told CNN. "I know so many innocent girls that were fattened up against their will to be married off and most of them got sick. I feel sad when I constantly see them struggling with blood pressure, hypertension and heart diseases."

"Girls here in Mauritania have suffered a lot from the tradition of leblouh. They are forced to eat up very large quantities of food and drink up bowls of goat's or cow's milk,'' Mint Ahmed added as tears welled in her eyes.

Mint Ahmed, who has one son, was raised in the city of Kiffa, about 600km (370 miles) away in eastern Mauritania.

Before they used camel milk, nowadays the girls are force-fed with chemicals used to fatten animals
--Mar Jubero Capdeferro, U.N. in Mauritania
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She tells us 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.

"My mother started fattening me forcibly when I was 13-years-old. She used to beat me to eat more oiled couscous and fat lamb's meat. Each time I thought my stomach would explode," Selekeha Mint Sidi recalls.

Mint Sidi was married last year and has one daughter, but she told CNN that she will never fatten her daughter "whatever the reason."

The women are not part of a group pressing for legislation to ban leblouh but they do want to educate Mauritanians about the risks.

Leblouh has its supporters though, particularly in rural Mauritania.

"Personally, I do believe that fattening girls is more than a necessity. Slim girls bring shame to their families and even their tribes as well. It's also difficult for them to attract men's eyes in our society," said 55-year-old Achetou Mint Taleb.

"I had two daughters and I fattened them while they were eight to 10 years old, so both of them grew enormously, have married quickly and got children before the age of 17. They are managing their families and come to see me on weekends. I am now very proud of what I did," she added.

The women in charge of fattening girls often think the vomiting that regularly accompanies being force-fed is normal and natural for their young charges.

Mint Taleb turns a deaf ear to the anti-leblouh voices. "I know that some of the growing generation oppose the tradition of leblouh, but I don't care as long as I am faithful to my cultural heritage. I'm not alone for sure."

Mar Jubero Capdeferro, in charge of gender programs for the U.N. Population Fund in Mauritania, said: "They say if a women is fat, normally it means her family has the means to feed her, they are not poor, they have money to feed the little girls. It became the standard for beauty, the fatter you are, the more pretty you are."

She added: "With the younger generation it's regressing. Most of the families don't do it anymore... Before you didn't see women walking (in the streets). Before they used to stay at home making tea, not go working. Now they go exercise, they walk."

She says the tradition is regressing amongst the younger generation as they see the consequences. The older women, "now they're very fat, in their forties and fifties, they cannot even move, they have hypertension, diabetes, and so on."

But "for the little girls that are being force-fed, the practice is getting more dangerous. Before they used camel milk, nowadays the girls are force-fed with chemicals used to fatten animals," Capdeferro said.

According to a 2007 study by the Social Solidarity Association -- a national group set up to help what it calls the victims of Mauritanian customs -- only seven percent of city girls were forcibly fattened but the number in rural areas was closer to 75 percent.

The NGO says this is because many women still carry traditional views which are common in the rural population.

Capdeferro said she didn't have exact figures but the numbers cited by the Social Solidarity Association reflected what she saw in rural against city proliferation.

In the capital's National Hospital, Dr. Vadel Lemine warns: "We hospitalize daily big numbers of victims of forced-fattening, and most of the victims are coming from the interior regions whose people still exercise the culture of leblouh. It seems that our advice, as doctors, hasn't been heard enough -- at least in our traditional society." There are no official figures for the number of women hospitalized.

Lemrabott Brahim, a social analyst with OJLPA, a local organization based in Nouakchott which fights poverty and illiteracy, said that forced-fattening, beauty and marriage are for now inseparable terms in the minds of most Mauritanian mothers.

"It's hard to eradicate the culture of force-feeding in Mauritania. It's something deeply-rooted in the minds and hearts of Mauritanian mothers, particularly in the remote areas where the uneducated villagers still strongly believe blindly in the tradition."

 
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