Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Force-feeding in Mauritania

by Rogers Muyanja, University of Massachusetts Lowell

Force-feeding is a cultural practice in Mauritania where young girls are forced to consume large quantities of food to become fat, and fit for marriage. In this West African nation that lies between the Western Sahara and Senegal, women are encouraged-- and those who rebel are forced-- to gain as much weight as possible, to be considered attractive since having a well-fed wife is seen as desirable and a sign of wealth and prestige. In their quest to find a husband, many women are being pushed to dangerous lengths to gain weight. It is a cultural practice deeply rooted in the culture of the Mauritanian people -- making it one of the African countries where, on average, girls are served more shares of food than boys (Hater, 2004). Here click to watch a video from the Canadian Broadcasting Company about this issue.

When a U.S. journalist recently traveled to Mauritania to observe this practice, he learned that girls are fattened by their families, starting when they are as young as eight years old. The Mauritanian people referred to this practice as “gavage,” derived from a French word that describes force-feeding. The UNICEF Country Programme report of 2011 on Mauritania for the years, 2012 – 2016, has highlighted the urgency of the need to address the issue, stating that 43 per cent of women marry before the age of 18 and 19 per cent marry before the age of 15 while 20 percent of the girls are at risk or are victims of force-feeding (Mauritania Country Programme Document, 2011). Given the health consequences of such practices, some women have started advocating for its end, suggesting that the tradition brings them shame. Mariam Mint Ahmed, a 25 year old Mauritanian woman, wants it to become history and recounts that girls have traditionally suffered through the practice with many becoming sick, and acquiring secondary illnesses including hypertension and heart disease (Wedoud, 2010).

Developing momentum for abolishing this practice is a challenge. Just when young women in cities like Nouakchott (the capital) were beginning to slim down, a military coup in August of 2008 removed the democratic government and installed a junta that favored a return to the tradition. Relevant community psychology approaches that could be used to address this problem reflect he fourth of eighteen competencies for community psychology practice developed by SCRA; Community and Social Change. This competency highlights community practitioner skill in collaboration, community advocacy, public policy analysis and advocacy, information dissemination, and building public awareness -- all of which are relevant to helping change the attitudes of these communities to attain the necessary social change. For example, the dissemination of information on the dangers of this practice to women, which seems to be ignored, could help counter the social acceptance of this custom. Alternatively, the use of community engagement strategies could be used to generate culturally-appropriate and respected alternatives to the practice.


Rogers Muyanja is a graduate student in the Peace & Conflict Studies Master's program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is currently enrolled in Dr. Christopher Allen's Introduction to Community Social Psychology course.


Harter, P. (2004, January, 26th). Mauritania’s “wife-fattening” farm. Retrieved October 5, 2015, from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/3429903.stm

Mauritania Country Programme Document. (2011, June 20). Retrieved October 5, 2015, from http://www.unicef.org/about/execboard/files/Mauritania_final_approved_2012-2016_English_20_Oct_2011.pdf

Wedoud, M. (2010, October 12). Women fight Mauritania's fattening tradition. Retrieved October 5, 2015, from http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/africa/10/12/mauritania.force.feed/


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