Fat is beautiful in Mauritania but the quest for obesity is driving some women to force-feed their daughters. The long-term health effects are serious and often life-threatening.
Wednesday, 2 November, 2005
1900 GMT on BBC Two
Obesity is a badge of wealth and prestige in Mauritania but in this country on the edge of the Sahara desert, malnutrition is never far away.
Without Western foods and fizzy drinks to help, putting on so much weight is no easy task.
Girls as young as seven are forced to drink vast quantities of milk and eat couscous to trigger early puberty so they can be married off.
Their stomachs are stretched to the limit, prompting violent pain and vomiting.
The result, as they grow, is early diabetes, heart disease, gallstones and arthritis which immobilises and eventually kills them.
Officially force-feeding is said to have disappeared, after government health campaigns pronounced it wrong.
But the message has yet to reach many of Mauritania's remote areas.
'Source of shame'
We meet Momta, a formidable matron and expert force-feeder sitting with her 10-year-old granddaughter, Souadou, in the village of Ruahel.
She waves a stick and watches as the child struggles to swallow.
The child's fingers are clamped between two sticks which, Momta explains, will stem her urge to vomit by distracting her with some local pain.
Momta denies that this is cruel; quite the opposite. She believes it will make her granddaughter beautiful and enable her to marry a rich husband.
"For us, a girl who has not been force fed is ugly, not beautiful, and she's a source of shame to her family," she says.
Drugs are also making obesity more attainable. Steroids are the weight gain drug of choice and can be bought illegally in pharmacies.
Mauritania's love affair with female obesity is continuing to cripple a vulnerable sector of its society.
In Force Fed, Olenka Frenkiel investigates this disturbing and unwitting form of child abuse.
Reporter: Olenka Frenkiel
Producer: Rachael Turner
Executive producer: Karen O'Connor