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.
Aminetou Mint Ely, a women's rights campaigner, said girls as young as 5 were still being subjected to the tradition of leblouh every year.
They are tortured into swallowing huge amounts of food and liquid - and made to consume their vomit if they reject it.
"In Mauritania, a woman's size indicates the amount of space she occupies in her husband's heart," said Mint Ely, head of the Association of Women Heads of Households.
"We have gone backwards. We had a Ministry of Women's Affairs. We had achieved a parliamentary quota of 20 per cent of seats. We had female diplomats and governors. The military have set us back by decades, sending us back to our traditional roles. We no longer even have a ministry to talk to."
Mauritania has had a series of coups since independence from France in 1960. In the latest, in August last year, General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz seized power after the elected president tried to sack him.
A children's rights lawyer, Fatimata M'baye, echoed Ely's pessimism.
"I have never managed to bring a case in defence of a force-fed child. The politicians are scared of questioning their own traditions. Rural marriages usually take place under customary law or are overseen by a marabou [a Muslim preacher]. No state official gets involved."
Leblouh is intimately linked to early marriage and often involves a girl of 5, 7 or 9 being obliged to eat excessively to achieve female roundness and corpulence, so that she can be married as young as possible.
Girls from rural families are taken for leblouh at "fattening farms" where older women, or the children's aunts or grandmothers, will administer pounded millet, camel's milk and water in quantities that make them ill.
A typical daily diet for a six-year-old will include 2kg of pounded millet mixed with two cups of butter and 20 litres of camel's milk.
"The fattening is done during the school holidays or in the rainy season when milk is plentiful," said M'baye. "The girl is sent away from home without understanding why. She suffers but is told that being fat will bring her happiness. Matrons use sticks which they roll on the girl's thighs, to break down tissue and hasten the process."
Other leblouh practices include a form of torture - zayar - using two sticks inserted each side of a toe. When a child refuses to drink or eat, the matron squeezes the sticks together, causing great pain.
A successful fattening process will produce a 12-year-old weighing 80kg.
"If she vomits she must drink it. By the age of 15 she will look 30," said M'baye.
The resurgence of the practice in rural Mauritania is a depressing setback for campaigners after previous education and awareness campaigns were apparently having a tangible effect.
"The challenge we face is that these girls live in rural areas and do not have access to information," said Ely. "Until the military coup last year, we had made strides. Ten years ago we ran information campaigns about the dangers of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The Government even commissioned ballads condemning fattening."
Many middle-class Mauritanians, among a population of about three million, claim force-feeding no longer exists.
Political scientist Mohamed el-Mounir, 38, said Western influence had wiped out the allure of feminine fat.
"Fattening is something from the 1950s. These days girls watch fashion shows on television. Their role models are American actresses or Lebanese singers in sexy dresses. Girls do sport."
Health and development consultant Mounina Mint Abdellah, 51, said she was force-fed as a child by her mother's family. "Things have changed tremendously. When I left school in 1980 it would have been unthinkable for me to go abroad to study.
But Ely and M'baye insist the fat "ideal" is back. Ely cites life-threatening weight-gain practices of some women.
"To remain fat, as adults, they take animal hormones or buy prescription drugs with appetite-enhancing side-effects. A woman died in hospital in Nouakchott last week. I'm afraid this problem is still very much with us."
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Last updated 03/03/2009 08:04:43