Aminetou Mint Moctar is head of Association des Femmes Chefs de Famille (Association of Women Heads of Household). This is a women’s rights charity in Nouakchott, the Capital of Mauritania.
Her organisation is campaigning to criminalise a tradition thought to affect 75% of Mauritanian girls as young as five in rural areas, and 25% of girls overall. This tradition is known as “gavage”.
WHAT IS GAVAGE?
Gavage is the tradition of force feeding girls so that they become more attractive. It dates back to the 11th century but has significantly re-emerged in Mauritania since 2008.
“Mauritanian men often see large girls and women as more desirable,” said Moctar, “they take it as a sign of wealth and that a girl will make a good wife”.
According to rights group Equality Now, the tradition is linked to child marriage. Gavage makes girls look older and past puberty, therefore ready to marry earlier.
In poorer communities, marrying well is crucial. Mothers believe getting fat will increase the chances of a happy marriage.
Gavage usually lasts two months during rainy season when food is more plentiful. Breakfast is usually sweetened camel’s milk, porridge and couscous. Lunch is greasy white rice, vegetables, nuts and chicken.
By the end of gavage, girls are eating up to 16,000 calories a day. That’s eight times the recommended intake.
WHAT ARE THE DANGERS OF GAVAGE?
It takes hours for the young girls to finish each meal. If she refuses to keep eating, her mother or a professional force feeder will sometimes hold her feet between sticks.
There are many health risks associated with gavage. These include diabetes, heart disease, and kidney failure.
As a result of drought causing food shortages, many women turn to taking drugs to put on weight. These include steroids, antihistamines, and hormones used to fatten camels.
Moctar warns “these are pills meant for animals, which can be even more dangerous than eating too much food”.
There are no figures for how many women are taking these drugs, however it is suggested that their use is widespread.
IS MAURITANIA BEGINNING TO REJECT THE TRADITION?
Youma Mohamed, a human rights activist, explains that “having a job and earning an income allows [women] to stand up to their families and make their own decisions”.
Working women “aren’t as interested in putting on weight” because their jobs require them to be mobile.
Yet women in rural areas often have no choice but to practise gavage. Their lack of independence and lack of education means that beauty is their biggest power, therefore their priority.
Moctar and her colleges are helping Mauritanian women become independent, so that they have the freedom to choose if they marry and how they look.