Abusing children with misguided love
Mauritania is a poor desert society that is being transformed by wealth brought on by oil. This wealth is changing the traditional nomadic lifestyle in ways that are spreading education amongst children whose families roam less across the desert. And while this wealth is changing some of the attitudes towards force-feeding young girls, the desire to have fat women persists and more modern methods, arguably worse than the traditional ones, are becoming available.
There is a great social divide between the lighter skinned Moors of the north and the rest of the population. Wealth and slavery allowed the Moorish princesses to live a life of idle luxury whereby they grew fat leading to the appreciation of obesity in women as a sign of beauty and status. In a country that suffers great food shortages during the long dry months and the frequent droughts, putting on weight is no easy matter. So a tradition of force-feeding young girls by their mothers and grandmothers has developed. Once the rains have come and food, particularly milk, is more abundant, the young girls are coerced with physical and verbal abuse to consume vast quantities of milk and couscous way beyond the needs of their bodies. The girls cry in protest and often vomit the excess food but the practice persists for many years leading to premature puberty and eventual obesity. Mothers were happy to admit to the camera that they beat their daughters to ensure that they eat as much as possible.
This immediate abuse is bad enough but the health problems brought on in later life – hypertension, diabetes, weakened hearts and joints, gall stones, kidney failure, etc – ensure that the abuse does not end once the force feeding ends. And now that there is more wealth, unscrupulous chemists are to be found everywhere selling illegal corticosteroids to assist mothers in their quest to make their daughters fat. These drugs also have the added benefit of making the skin lighter, another sign of beauty and status even though they often lead to excess facial hair.
It was heart breaking watching a 10 year old being forced to drink vast quantities of milk while voluntarily keeping her fingers in her grandmother’s ‘torture device’, a wooden clamp. It was pitiful hearing about the methods she resorted to, including bulimia, to consume less food. It was tragic hearing how she didn’t want to get fat because she knew what effect it would have on her life and her desire to become a teacher.
The government is promoting healthier lifestyles by condemning force-feeding and promoting healthier eating and exercise. But it isn’t addressing the reasons behind this abuse, an abuse being perpetuated out of misguided love. Until that is done, it is unlikely that this tradition will disappear soon.