'I was force-fed five times a day to fatten me up for marriage aged 12 – if I refused or threw up I'd be beaten'
TEARS trickled down four-year-old Annie's* face as her mother forced another spoonful of porridge into her already-stuffed mouth.
She was so full, her little stomach close to bursting, after being force-fed five times a day until she was sick in a bid to fatten her up for marriage.
While it sounds shocking, it's a very real issue for girls living in the west African country of Mauritania, where big is considered beautiful and seen as an indicator of good health, despite the many problems associated with obesity.
Based on the diet and the frequency of meals as described by the victims of the force feeding tradition, known as Leblouh, UNICEF estimates young girls could be forced to intake to 9,000 calories per day- over four times more than the World Health Organisation's daily recommendation, and some reports suggest that figure could be anywhere up to 16,000 calories a day.
It has been reported around a quarter of Mauritanian girls are force-fed during the 'feeding season', and there are even fattening farms to 'help' girls put on weight, with a 'successful' fattening process aiming for a 12-year-old to weigh 80kg (over 12st). That's almost double the average weight of a healthy 12-year-old female.
Zeinabou, Chairwoman of the Mauritanian Association for Mother and Child Health, says: "In Africa, and not only in Mauritania, a woman's beauty comes from her curves.
"The aim [through force-feeding] was to beautify the woman, to show that she came from a good family and that she was not undernourished."
Here, we take a closer look at the practice, and speak exclusively to women affected…
'I used to be locked in a room until I'd finished eating'
Coming from a poor family, sadly Annie's story is far from rare.
The 29 year-old was force-fed from the age of four. She says: "It continued until I married at the age of 12.
"Several times a day my mother used to push me to swallow large quantities of fine couscous made from millet or corn mixed with milk, porridge and fermented milk diluted in water and sugar.
"She used to say to me: 'Eat, eat, to be fat and beautiful like your friends"' but I didn't want to, I wasn't hungry.”
"I used to be locked in a room, not a chance to come out until I finished my meals – so I would secretly empty the bowl out the window until someone reported me. From then on my mother used to sit with me and make sure I ate everything.
"The hardest part was not vomiting. When I refused to eat or vomited it, she used to hit or pinch me. As I grew older, I saw my body change, and quickly gained weight.”
Forcibly married aged 12 and pregnant at 13
While Mauritania has set the legal age of marriage at 18 in accordance with international standards, marriage earlier is likely for many young girls.
According to a study conducted in 2015, nearly one out of three girls aged between 15 and 19 gets married in Mauritania, and Annie is one of them.
The hardest part was not vomiting. When I refused to eat or vomited, my mum used to hit or pinch me"
She recalls: "I was forcibly married at the age of 12 to a friend of my uncle who was much older than me.
"I didn't know this man, he used to scare me the hell out of me. Barely a year later, shortly after my first period, I got pregnant. Since then, I have had seven children and the eighth one is on the way."
Recently taken care of by Mauritanian Association for Mother and Child Health thanks to the support of UNICEF, Annie, whose husband left her, is positive about the future, and determined her own three daughters will never go through the same experience.
She says: "One minute I was playing with my friends and the next I was a woman. One thing is for sure, I will never let my daughters go through the same thing I did. I will oppose that.”
'I'm traumatised for life'
As well as being an expert and a campaigner for women's rights Zeinabou also knows firsthand what it's like, having experienced the practice when she was five.
She says:"I still suffer after-effects – I have diabetes and my body is scarred. I was traumatised for life by the experience. There was a well-known proverb that says that the more space a woman takes up in a house, the more space she takes up in her husband's heart.”
"I was taken to a nurse and every day she used to hand me huge quantities of milk for me to swallow without arguing. The times I refused to do so, she beat me on my feet with a large wooden pliers.
"When I vomited, she hit me and between meals she pulled on the skin on my belly to make it more supple and to bring out the stretch marks. It waslike that until I got married, at the age of 14.”
Weight gain medication bought on the black market
Now, adolescent girls are reportedly increasingly using medication and chemicals to help with weight gain.
Treatment for allergies and colds with the side effect of increased appetite, and growth hormones for animals have emerged in recent years as weight gain 'aids' sold on the black market.
Zeinabou says: "It's very serious because it's not controlled at all. These treatments are readily available for 1.000 ouguiyas (about £20)."
Thankfully, the ancient practice is nowhere near as widespread as it used to be, and Zeinabou continues to campaign alongside UNICEF for women and children to enjoy fair rights.
She says: "We must make a change in the way we look at women in Mauritanian society.
"As long as this mentality does not change, many girls will keep putting themselves at risk by carelessly trying to gain weight."
For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit www.unicef.org, or follow UNICEF on Twitter and Facebook.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.
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