As perceptions of beauty change and obesity-related diseases rise, more women in Mauritania are fighting back against force-feeding, according to the government. But even as some women refuse to fatten up, up to one-third of the country’s women are still risking their lives to put on weight to conform to a longstanding aesthetic standard that has long valued big as beautiful.
Social pressure is often so great that women have fallen ill from deliberately over-eating to pile on pounds.
But never again, said Mbarker Mint Mhaimid, 55. “I was forced to eat by my mother who said beauty and culture required it. When I got older, I hated going out. My friends called me the mother of the group because I developed so many illnesses.”
She told IRIN she now takes medication for blood pressure and heart disease. “It was only recently that I understand just how deadly [the heavy eating] was.”
Mhaimid told IRIN she forbade her daughter from high-risk eating.
Word is spreading about the danger of obesity in classroom presentations to young girls, community radio programmes discouraging unhealthy eating and documentary films produced by local non-profits. Amintou Mint Moctar, the head of local NGO Female-Headed Households, told IRIN graphic films about force-feeding have made an impact.
“We show a 12-year-old who has the tired sagging flesh of an unhealthy 40-year-old woman. She is forced into marriage [and] ends up divorced with children in an abandoned home or tent. The outcome is this can happen to any of you if you do not avoid this practice of obesity," Moctar told IRIN.
The Mauritanian government plans in 2010 to launch a programme with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) with funding from the Spanish government to fight practices harmful to women, including force-feeding.
|Half of the 300 patients we have seen thus far have heart health problems as a result of force-feeding|
The National Centre of Cardiology Care, based in the capital Nouakchott and founded in March 2009, is expected to develop a heart health education outreach programme, according to staff doctor Hadj Sarr. “Half of the 300 patients we have seen thus far have heart health problems as a result of force-feeding or optional obesity, [in part] through non-prescribed medication,” he told IRIN.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over the next decade, Africa will have the biggest increase in deaths worldwide from chronic diseases – already the world’s number-one killers. Major chronic diseases include heart disease and diabetes, both linked to nutrition.
Nouakchott pharmacist Abdurrahman Ould Abdel Wedoud told IRIN that women consume large quantities of multivitamins to increase their appetites. “They want to eat more to be fat. It is their choice because they are not forced to do it as it used to be the case.” At US$10 a box, most women use two boxes a month, or save money by purchasing them on the black market, said the pharmacist.
A 2008 Ministry of Social Affairs study estimates that at least 20 percent of all women overeat – either of their own will or through coercion.
But the rate is declining, said UNFPA gender specialist Mariem Mint Ahmed Sabar. “This practice is going to disappear because the criterion of beauty has changed; we are following the world rhythm slowly.”