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Friday, July 11, 2014

Leblouh: Mauritania's Other Human Rights Atrocity

This is an article I wrote for the Student Center for African Research and Resolutions, a student think tank in Washington, D.C. Check them out at for more student-produced news regarding African affairs. This article can also be accessed in SCARR's blog section.

This article was originally published on July 4, 2014. 

Mauritania is a vast but sparsely populated desert country on the western tip of Africa, and its
atrocious human rights record is relatively unknown. The existence of slavery in rural parts of
the country is denied by the government, but it is very much a reality. However, forced servitude is not the only backwards atrocity lurking in Mauritania’s desert. Many rural Mauritanians practice leblouh, where girls from the age of five are force-fed to become obese, which is considered attractive and supposedly attracts possible husbands. This practice forces young girls to struggle with health problems associated with obesity, like high blood pressure and heart disease.
Western influence has gradually diminished the practice as more and more younger Mauritanians have considered obesity unattractive, but there seems to have been a revival after the most recent president Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz, who is backed by the military, took power in 2009. He has governed in an authoritarian fashion since 2009, after a brief period of democratization took place in Mauritania earlier in the 2000s. He was recently re-elected in a contest marked by an opposition boycott and low turnout. The opposition in Mauritania acknowledges the practice as an atrocity and calls for an end to it as they do for slavery, but the current ruling party pretends it does not exist.

The key to ending this barbaric and backwards practice may lie in the younger generation of Mauritanians. Nearly 60 percent of Mauritanians are at or under the age of 24, and their voices are important for the current government to secure legitimacy for the future. Younger Mauritanians will present a challenge to the government and its tendency to sweep Mauritania’s problems under the carpet. The problem, however, is that the younger generation of Mauritanians is undereducated and generally poor; Mauritania’s literacy rate is only 58 percent. Some effort to drive rural Mauritanians away from the practice could be productive as well, though previous efforts to do so have been relatively unsuccessful as many believe it to be a part of their culture.

As barbaric as this practice is, it is not a common one. Mauritania ranks 127th in the world in obesity rates, comparable to Turkmenistan and Botswana, neither of which are not typically known for their high obesity rates. In theory, this may make it easier for a shift in power to combat the problem, but there’s no telling when or if the opposition to President Abdel Aziz will be able to mount a serious uprising. Mauritania did briefly experience upheaval when the Arab Spring was in full swing, but it was suppressed violently, and the protests gained little media coverage. The United States currently considers the Mauritanian government to be an ally because they actively suppress terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda in Mauritania, a predominantly Muslim state.

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