Young girls are being force-fed 16,000 calories a day
In the Western world, self-destructive attitudes towards food see both women and men starve themselves, day in, day out, to get those defined cheekbones and that size zero waistline. The pathological pursuit of so-called "perfection" reportedly affects eight million people in the United States, as well as a great number more across the world, with the illness often reaping destruction on every single area of the patient's life.
Is getting an eating disorder a choice? Of course it isn't. Factors like genetics, low self-esteem, the worship of hollow-cheeked models and numerous other issues can all build up to create a worrying obsession that culminates in a mental health problem.
But what if things were different? What if an eating disorder wasn't a mental illness, but instead something that was physically thrust upon you? As messed up as it sounds, this is exactly what is happening to young girls in rural Mauritania, a country in the Maghreb region of Northwestern Africa, as well as in northern Mali and rural Niger. However, rather being forced not to eat, girls as young as five are being force-fed in order to fatten them up for marriage.
Named "leblouh", the cruel practice sees children being tortured into swallowing gargantuan amounts of food and liquid that can equal as many as 16,000 calories a day. What's on the grotesquely oversized menu for them? According to children's rights lawyer Fatimata M'baye, a typical daily diet for a six-year-old could include two kilos of pounded millet, mixed with two cups of butter, as well as 20 litres of camel's milk.
So, how can you literally make someone eat? If a child closes their mouth tightly and runs away, surely they can't be force-fed against their will? The sad truth is that some young girls are being forced to take animal growth hormones and other dangerous drugs to help pile on the pounds and make themselves more attractive to men who find larger ladies more appealing.
Possibly even more horrifying is when leblouh advocates - normally the children's mothers, aunts or grandmothers - employ a subtle form of torture named zayar, which sees two sticks inserted each side of a toe of the little girl. When the child refuses to eat or drink, the matron squeezes the two sticks together, putting their victim in agony.
If they manage to withstand this torture and still reject the food, the leblouh only becomes more and more horrific, with little girls forced to consume their own vomit if they refuse to eat as much as physically possible.
A report published in 2014 by Equality Now highlighted the particularly troubling case of child bride Khadijetou, who died after being put on a dangerously high-calorie diet. Seriously obese when she fell pregnant with her first child, the young girl gave birth by cesarean section to save her baby’s life. Nonetheless, her mother would not accept any weight loss, giving her a type of medication to put on weight. She was reportedly just 11 when she died last June, 20 days after giving birth.
The practice dates back to pre-colonial times when all Mauritania's white Moor Arabs were nomads. Back then, and still often now, weight was a sign of wealth: the richer the man, the less work his wife would have to do, meaning she would be able to relax and eat rich food while her slaves saw to the chores around the household.
The resurgence of leblouh, in the country where rolling layers of fat are seen as the height of desirability, has seen "fattening farms" emerge, where girls are taken out of their homes and taken to a secure location to be fed, told that by the time they come home, they will be beautiful. Yet, predictably, marriage is not the only thing this extra weight leads to: of course, it's common for girls to develop health problems and struggle with high blood pressure and heart disease, among other illnesses.
Over the years, there have been reports of young women rising up to fight back against the disturbing tradition. However, in Mauritania, it seems tradition always trumps common decency, with rights for women seemingly only getting worse over there, despite Mauritania signing both international and African treaties protecting the rights of children.
Mint Ely, head of the Association of Women Heads of Households said: ''We have gone backwards. We had a Ministry of Women's Affairs. We had achieved a parliamentary quota of 20% of seats. We had female diplomats and governors. The military have set us back by decades, sending us back to our traditional roles. We no longer even have a ministry to talk to."
In addition, Children's rights lawyer, Fatimata M'baye, told the Guardian in 2009: "I have never managed to bring a case in defence of a force-fed child. The politicians are scared of questioning their own traditions. Rural marriages usually take place under customary law or are overseen by a marabou (a Muslim preacher). No state official gets involved, so there is no arbiter to check on the age of the bride."
This idea of tradition continues to prevail. When CNN interviewed 55-year-old Achetou Mint Taleb, she claimed that fattening young girls was "more than necessity", claiming that "slim girls bring shame to their families." She added: "I am now very proud of what I did."
So, with both government and familial figures clutching to the disturbing process of leblouh with both hands, it seems things will remain the same for the little girls who are forced to eat until they vomit. Tragically, as long as a woman's size continues to indicate the amount of space she occupies in her husband's heart, there seems little hope for any of them.