Leblouh (Arabic: البلوح, romanizedlə-blūḥ) is the practice of force-feeding girls from as young as five to nineteen, in countries where obesity was traditionally regarded as desirable.[1][2][3] Especially prevalent in rural areas and having its roots in Tuareg[4] tradition, leblouh is practiced to increase chances of marriage in a society where high body volume used to be a sign of wealth.

The practice occurs in several African countries, such as Mauritania,[5] Niger,[6] Uganda,[7][8] Sudan,[9] Tunisia[6] (specifically Jewish people),[10] Nigeria,[11][12][13][14] Kenya and South Africa.[15]

The practice goes back to the 11th century, and has been reported to have made a significant comeback in Mauritania after a military junta took over the country in 2008.[16] The younger generations in Mauritania view this practice negatively.[17]


Older women called "fatteners" force the young girls to consume enormous quantities of food and liquid,[16] inflicting pain on them if they do not eat and drink. One way of inflicting pain is to pinch a limb between two sticks. A six-year-old might typically be forced to drink 20 litres (4.4 imp gal; 5.3 US gal) of camel's milk, and eat two kilos of pounded millet mixed with two cups of butter, every day. Although the practice is abusive, mothers claim there is no other way to secure a good future for their children.[16][17]

A similar practice is referred to in a folktale entitled "The Tortoise with a Pretty Daughter", collected in Folk Stories from Southern Nigeria (1910). The folklorist who wrote down the story explained the treatment of the "pretty daughter": "The fatting house is a room where a girl is kept for some weeks before her marriage. She is given plenty of food, and made as fat as possible, as fatness is looked upon as a great beauty by the Efik people and Bahumono."[18]

Leblouh in Mauritania

Leblouh (often referred to using the French word gavage) in Mauritania is quite unique and involves an often months long process during which Mauritanian girls are forced to swallow gallons of milk, couscous, peanut oil, and cups of pure animal fat. An often cited statistic is that Mauritanian girls undergoing the process of Leblouh consume four times the amount of calories as an adult male bodybuilder who consumes on average 4,000 calories daily. During these months the child or young girl being fattened consumes on average 14,000 to 16,000 calories daily, while the recommended diet for a healthy 12-year old girl includes only 1,500 calories.[19] Young girls are often fattened from around the age of 6 or 7 and are coerced using techniques which cause varying degrees of mental and physical anguish. If the young girls refuse to consume the on average 20 liters of milk a day that they are given, they are subjected to "toe squeezing" which involves the crushing of the toes using a contraption made of sticks, pinched on the skin, or even hit.[20] Sources state that the most common reason for families investing in Leblouh for their young daughter is to ensure her financial security and good marriage prospects.[21]

Gavage is much more common in the poorer and more resource deficient regions of Mauritania.[21] These regions include the rural Saharan regions of the country, the rural areas along the Senegal River in the Sahelian region, along with the urban areas along the coast. In these regions, families are much more motivated to force-feed their daughters in the effort to draw wealthy suitors. It does not appear however, that gavaged women have greater wealth or access to resources than their non-gavaged counterparts.

The practice of fattening girls in Mauritania has been linked to incredibly harmful physical and psychological consequences. Leblouh has been correlated with significant reductions in movement and the development of cardiovascular diseases.[22] The use of pills, in the form of steroids, to cause weight gain have been widely reported throughout the country.[23] The increasing frequency of droughts has also caused a shortage of cows, camels, produce, and grain used to feed families and/or fatten girls. As a result, many families have been forced to sell their livestock because they can not afford to feed themselves. Many women and young girls have now turned to black market cattle and incredibly dangerous bird steroids to gain weight.[19] The increasing levels of impoverishment in some areas of the country have also led some women and girls to discover that antihistamines, traditionally used to treat hay fever, have appetite inducing qualities. While these products are still dangerous, they are much more accessible and can be purchased over-the-counter. Women who have undergone Leblouh are also at a consistently higher risk of initiating sex earlier and having children earlier than their counterparts who were not gavaged.[21] Gavage may also put women at serious risk for poor childbirth outcomes, HIV/AIDS, and other health issues, above and beyond the impact of BMI that itself constitutes a physical health risk. Also, there seems to be a strong correlation between gavage and early pregnancy as early pregnancy is more common among poor young women.[24]

Origins of leblouh and revival

It is difficult to precisely pinpoint the origins of force-feeding in Mauritania. However, some historians believe that the practice is centuries old and dates back to a time when most Mauritanians were nomads.[25] In this nomadic society, obesity was seen as a sign of beauty in women and the wives of rich men would often not work and sit in tents while black slaves did the hard labor that the desert required. Mauritania is a society that even today is governed by two distinct populations: the light-skinned Moors and the dark-skinned Africans whose roots are largely sub-Saharan.[26] Mauritanians who identify as Arabs still have the highest rates of Leblouh in the country when compared to the nation's minority groups. [19]

The 21st century however has been a time for the revival of Leblouh in Mauritania, as well as a time for reform. In 2005, the head of President Ould Taya’s presidential guard, Mohamed Ould Ely Vall led a coup with the promise of free and fair elections in 2006. In 2006 and 2007, democratic, free and transparent elections occurred for the first time in Mauritania.[27] After just two years of democracy and a period of serious institutional crisis with several changes to government and the presentation of a motion of censorship by a group of deputies, General Abdel Aziz seized power by force after a new political coup in 2008. This coup occurred in August 2008, and the democratic government was subsequently replaced with a military junta that favored what they called "a return to tradition." An election in July 2009 allowed the military junta to maintain control of the government. After this election a slew of legislation was enacted focusing on reinstating traditional rules into law, despite claims of massive vote-rigging. Mint Ely, a women's rights campaigner, describes: "We had a Ministry of Women's Affairs. ... We had female diplomats and governors. The military set us back by decades, sending us back to our traditional roles. We no longer even have a ministry to talk to."[citation needed]

Government figures from prior to the 2008 coup indicate that gavage occurred in 50-60 percent of the women in rural areas and 20-30 percent of the women in urban areas. After the coup, professional force-feeders estimate that approximately 80 percent of women nation-wide have undergone some form of Leblouh.[19]

Attitudes towards leblouh in Mauritania and abroad

Data from the Mauritania 2000–2001 DHS was used to determine the attitudes of men and women in regards to the continuation of female genital mutilation and gavage.[23] The analysis found that the majority of both female and male respondents favored the continuation of the practice (64% and 70%, respectively). It also found that almost a quarter (23%) of women reported being force fed as a child and 32% of women and 29% of men approved the continuation of the practice. While the prevalence of gavage is clearly quite high, the harming of the genital organs of any child (including harm resulting from the practice of gavage and FGM) is illegal under the Mauritanian child protection penal code; penalties range from 1–3 years imprisonment and heavy fines. The law, however, does not specifically mention FGM or gavage as illicit practices that harm young children.

Attitudes in Mauritania do seem to be changing however with global influences, such as Western fashions, Nigerian pop music, and French TV altering the perceptions of body size and women's beauty.[19] Lebanese music is incredibly popular throughout the Middle East and Mauritanian men have begun to compare Mauritanian women to popular Lebanese singers, showing that attitudes may be changing in the country even among men.

International organizations and NGOs have also become increasingly interested in what they see as a peculiar and abusive cultural practice. The idea that traditional fattening customs have now morphed into cases where young women routinely ingest dangerous animal growth hormones and steroids has caught the attention of organizations such as Equality Now.[28]


See also


  1. ^ Popenoe, Rebecca. 2004. Feeding Desire: Fatness, Beauty, and Sexuality among a Saharan People. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415280969.
  2. ^ "De mujeres abundantemente hermosas (Abundantly beautiful women)". Archived from the original on 2014-12-25. Retrieved 2014-12-25.
  3. ^ LaFRANIERE, SHARON. In Mauritania, Seeking to End an Overfed Ideal Archived 2018-01-17 at the Wayback Machine, The New York Times, published on July 4, 2007. Accessed on June 30, 2011.
    • "Girls as young as 5 and as old as 19 had to drink up to five gallons of fat-rich camel’s or cow’s milk daily, aiming for silvery stretch marks on their upper arms. If a girl refused or vomited, the village weight-gain specialist might squeeze her foot between sticks, pull her ear, pinch her inner thigh, bend her finger backward or force her to drink her own vomit. In extreme cases, girls die, due to a burst stomach. The practice was known as gavage, a French term for force-feeding geese to obtain foie gras."
  4. ^ "Encyclopedie Berbere: Gavage". Archived from the original on 2016-04-26. Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  5. ^ Duval Smith, Alex (March 1, 2009). "Girls being force-fed for marriage as fattening farms revived". The Guardian.
  6. ^ a b Bernus, E.; Akkari-Weriemmi, J. (1998-09-01). "Gavage". Encyclopédie Berbère (in French) (20): 2996–2999. doi:10.4000/encyclopedieberbere.1856. ISSN 1015-7344. Archived from the original on 2019-10-17. Retrieved 2019-12-08.
  7. ^ The Price of Beauty, Episode 104
  8. ^ Rguibi, M.; Belahsen, R. (2006). "Fattening practices among Moroccan Saharawi women". Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal. 12 (5): 619–624. ISSN 1020-3397. PMID 17333802.
  9. ^ Baba, Hana (2013-05-14). "A country where big is no longer beautiful". Archived from the original on 2019-12-07. Retrieved 2019-12-08.
  10. ^ Salamon, Hagar; Juhasz, Esther (2011). ""Goddesses of Flesh and Metal": Gazes on the Tradition of Fattening Jewish Brides in Tunisia". Journal of Middle East Women's Studies. 7 (1): 1–38. doi:10.2979/jmiddeastwomstud.2011.7.1.1. ISSN 1552-5864. JSTOR 10.2979/jmiddeastwomstud.2011.7.1.1. S2CID 162465276.
  11. ^ "Where Fat Is a Mark of Beauty". Los Angeles Times. 1998-09-30. Archived from the original on 2019-12-08. Retrieved 2019-12-08.
  12. ^ "Journal from Kashmir - featuring women poets". World Pulse. 2015-10-17. Archived from the original on 2019-10-17. Retrieved 2019-12-08.
  13. ^ "namywedding.com". www.namywedding.com. Archived from the original on 2015-07-07. Retrieved 2019-12-08.
  14. ^ "Biyokulule Online". www.biyokulule.com. Archived from the original on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 2019-12-08.
  15. ^ "Biyokulule Online". www.biyokulule.com. Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. Retrieved 2019-12-08.
  16. ^ a b c Smith, Alex Duval. Girls being force-fed for marriage as junta revives fattening farms Archived 2018-01-25 at the Wayback Machine, The Observer, March 1, 2009.
  17. ^ a b Young Mauritanians reject forced fattening Archived 2017-12-29 at the Wayback Machine, Al Arabiya, February 24, 2009.
  18. ^ Chapter 1, note 4
  19. ^ a b c d e Guerrero, Lindsey A. "The force-feeding of young girls: Mauritania's failure to enforce preventative measures and comply with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women." Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems, vol. 21, no. 3, 2013, p. 879+. Gale Academic OneFile, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A330687900/AONE?u=tel_a_vanderbilt&sid=AONE&xid=11dd6785. Accessed 27 Apr. 2021.
  20. ^ Abeille, Barbara (1979). A Study of Female Life in Mauritania. Washington D.C.: ERIC Clearinghouse. pp. 44–45. Archived from the original on 2022-01-28. Retrieved 2021-12-02.
  21. ^ a b c Pendergast, Philip, and Adenife Modile. “Forced to Force-Feed? Gavage, Marriage and Sex in Mauritania.” PAA, PAA, 27 Apr. 2018, paa.confex.com/paa/2018/meetingapp.cgi/Paper/23553.
  22. ^ Enquête Démographique et de Santé Mauritanie 2000–2001. Nouakchott, Mauritanie: ONS et ORC Macro, Calverton, Maryland, USA.
  23. ^ a b Ouldzeidoune, Nacerdine, et al. “A Description of Female Genital Mutilation and Force-Feeding Practices in Mauritania: Implications for the Protection of Child Rights and Health.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, 9 Apr. 2013, journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0060594#pone.0060594-United2.
  24. ^ Domínguez-Mujica, Josefina, Mercedes de los Ángeles Rodríguez-Rodríguez, & Laudy Rivero-Rodríguez. "La Maternidad a edades tempranas en Mauritania: una perspectiva geodemográfica." Papeles de Población, 26.103 (2020): 123-156. Web. 27 apr. 2021
  25. ^ LaFraniere S (2007) In Mauritania: Seeking to end an overfed ideal. The New York Times.Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/04/world/africa/04mauritania.html?_r=2&ei=5070&en=039cd42546c89671&ex=1189915200&pagewanted=all&oref=slogin . Accessed 2011 Apr 1.
  26. ^ Tauzine, Aline. “Saharan Music About A Feminine Modernity.” Women’s Songs from West Africa, edited by Thomas A Hale and Aissata G Sidikou, Indiana University Press, 2014, pp. 112–114.
  27. ^ Luisa Moreno Manso y Carla Fernández-Durán Gortázar. “Mujer y Fortalecimiento Institucional. Estudio de caso: Mauritania”. Prólogo de Elvira Velasco Morillo. Colección H+D para el Desarrollo Nº 8, 2011. 36 pages.
  28. ^ Christopher E. Forth (2018) France and the fattened American: animality, consumption and the logic of gavage, Food, Culture & Society, 21:3, 350-366, doi:10.1080/15528014.2018.1451041