Fears are growing for the fate of thousands of young girls in rural Mauritania, where campaigners say the cruel practice of force-feeding young girls for marriage is making a significant comeback since a military junta took over the West African country.
Leblouh is the practice of force-feeding girls from as young as five to nineteen, in countries where obesity was traditionally regarded as desirable. Especially prevalent in rural areas and having its roots in Tuareg tradition, leblouh is practiced to increase chances of marriage in a society where high body volume used to be a sign of wealth.
In Mauritania, a woman's size indicates the amount of space she occupies in her husband's heart.
The practice is being done in several African countries, such as Mauritania, Niger, Uganda, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia (specifically Jewish people, Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa. The synonym gavage comes from the French term for the force-feeding of geese to produce foie gras. The practice goes back to the 11th century and has been reported to have made a significant comeback in Mauritania after a military junta took over the country in 2008. The younger generations of males in Mauritania now see fattening negatively.
Older women called "fatteners" force the young girls to consume enormous quantities of food and liquid, inflicting pain on them if they do not eat and drink. One way of inflicting pain is to pinch a limb between two sticks. A six-year-old might typically be forced to drink 20 liters (4.4 imp gal; 5.3 US gal) of camel's milk, and eat two kilos of pounded millet mixed with two cups of butter, every day. Although the practice is abusive, mothers claim there is no other way to secure a good future for their children.
A similar practice is referred to in a folktale entitled "The Tortoise with a Pretty Daughter", collected in Folk Stories from Southern Nigeria (1910). The folklorist who wrote down the story explained the treatment of the "pretty daughter": "The fatting house is a room where a girl is kept for some weeks before her marriage. She is given plenty of food, and made as fat as possible, as fatness is looked upon as a great beauty by the Efik people and Bahumono ."