A Brief Survey of Human Rights Abuses in Mauritania,
With Particular Emphasis on Abuses of Women and Girls
1. Context: Development Levels in Mauritania
Mauritania is a poor country and this is reflected in many of its statistics. It comes 159th out of 187 in the Human Development Index (HDI) for 2012, and its evolution within the Index has followed the general pattern for low HDI countries. The country has also suffered from considerable political upheaval in the past decade, with an obvious effect on progress. In the country as a whole literacy rates are not high, but women lag behind men with respective literacy rates of about 51% and 65%.
Maternal mortality is high at 550 per 100 000 live births. Infant and under-5 mortality are also high at 75 and 111 per 100 respectively. This partly reflects a lack of maternity care as well as the widely dispersed rural population. But it can also be attributed to a high fertility rate, high illiteracy and too many births to under-age mothers (more on which below). According to the United Nations Population Fund, the current Government is making an effort to improve provision of midwife services, but it is clear that Mauritania is unlikely to meet its Millennium Development Goals in these areas.
2. Human Rights in Mauritania: The General Picture
Mauritania has a number of problems with regards to human rights concerns.
In terms of political and civil rights, there are many troubling issues to note. At the political level there is corruption and the marginalization of southern-based ethnic groups. The right of association is limited, and the right to demonstrate is not always observed either, with popular concern having been expressed in terms of Mauritania’s security forces and its management of demonstrations. Arbitrary arrests, torture and beatings, enforced disappearances and extremely poor conditions in prisons, as well as sexual violence towards women in prison, are all issues of concern for those detained in Mauritania. As are its lengthy pre-trial detention periods and the government’s influence over the judiciary.
In terms of the media, freedom is again limited; the state has a monopoly over television and radio broadcasting, and journalists are required to respect the principles of Islam and national cultural values. Newspapers are often censored and have limited distribution, and the approval of the Interior Ministry is required for the establishment of a publication.
In terms of personal freedom, religious freedom for non-Muslims is restricted and discrimination on racial and ethnic grounds is widespread and institutionalised. The use of child labour is another problem in Mauritania with labour laws being inadequately enforced.
Slavery – and slavery-related practices – has been one of the most pressing of human rights concerns in Mauritania, but this will be discussed in the next [?] presentation. For the rest of this presentation I want to concentrate on another of the most pressing human rights issues in Mauritania: that is, human rights abuses of women and girls there. These kinds of abuses are perhaps some of the most notable, in terms of number and severity.
3. Abuse of Women’s and Girls’ Human Rights In Mauritania
The gender inequality index is high in Mauritania, scoring 0.718 on a scale from 0 (total equality) to 1 (total inequality), and there continues to exist a deeply entrenched patriarchal ideology, customs and stereotypes that legitimise gender-based violence. Such violence includes: forced and early marriages; the trafficking of girls; conjugal rape; Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); and the practice of force-feeding. I would like to speak a little about these issues now.
Pevalence of Forced Marriage
To start with child marriage. Child marriage is an issue still affecting girls in Mauritania. It is estimated that 19% of girls are married before the age of 15, and 43% before the age of 18. It is a practice that occurs throughout Mauritania – although there are some areas where the practice is more prevalent, such as Gorgol. And whilst child marriage is known to occur in all ethnic communities, it tends to be practiced more commonly in rural areas and amongst those of lower income levels and education.
Child marriage is by definition forced marriage, since a child is not capable of making such a life-defining choice. Child marriage has been shown many times to be dangerous for the physical and mental health of the child. Child brides are more likely to suffer violence from their husbands or their husbands’ families. Penetration by an adult man can lead to severe internal injury for a girl and even, in some cases, to death. Immature girls who become pregnant are also at risk both from the pregnancy and from childbirth. Child marriage is the main contributor to the high maternal mortality cited above. A girl under 15 who gives birth is five times more likely to die in childbirth than a woman in her twenties, and even if she does not die, she is also much more likely to suffer from severe ill health, including obstetric fistula. The children of young mothers are also much more likely to die within their first year.
According to the Mauritanian Association for the Health of Mothers and Children three kinds of forced marriages are practiced in the country: the first is when a girl from a poor family is forced to marry a rich man for financial purposes; the second is when a girl is forced into a polygamous relationship with an influential man; and the third kind is a practice known as maslaha, where a girl is forced to marry her cousin, so that she can be financially supported by him. Maslaha accounts for 43% of forced marriages in Mauritania.
Trafficking of girls
In a further sinister turn, the practice of forced marriage has been connected with the trafficking of girls, and has become a serious problem. Young girls, usually between 5 and 12 years old, are sold for high prices by their families to Saudi men who take them as child brides and for whom they are nothing but sex slaves. Some Saudi men prize pre-pubescent brides and keep them purely for sexual purposes. When the girls reach puberty they may be thrown out and forced into prostitution. Both Mauritanian society in general and the Government seem to turn a blind eye to this practice.
Another issue for girls and women in Mauritania is their vulnerability to rape. Rape is not well defined and so a woman complaining of rape may be judged guilty of zina (illicit sexual intercourse —fornication or adultery). About 60% of women who complain that they have been raped are accused of zina and risk imprisonment. This acts as a huge disincentive to report rapes. In any case it is very rare for rapists to be punished.
There is a basic problem that the law is administered by untrained and ignorant male judges who are likely to think that victims are to blame for being raped. Women are barred from becoming magistrates and sexual assault is essentially a taboo subject.
Female Genital Mutilation
Despite the government and international NGOs continued efforts to combat FGM in Mauritania, it remains yet another common form of abuse of females there. FGM is performed on young girls, often on the seventh day after birth and almost always before the age of six months. FGM can cause intense pain to the victim and can also prove dangerous for childbirth. It continues to be a widely practiced phenomenon, by all ethnic groups, in Mauritania – with 65% of women still being affected by it. This comes despite an ordinance prohibiting FGM, where the perpetrators are liable for imprisonment and a $410 to $1,034 penalty. In addition, fatwas against the practice have been given by a number of religious leaders.
A final abuse of girls and women worth mentioning here, and one that is almost unique to Mauritania, is forced feeding. Forced feeding brings about obesity in the victim – a condition that is highly esteemed in some echelons of Mauritanian society. The issue of forced feeding will be discussed in detail by Hannah Bock, but I raise it here as another example of abuse of females in Mauritania and note that, as with child marriage and FGM, forced feeding is a threat to women’s and girl’s health and medical safety. The obesity that forced feeding incurs can cause any number of general health problems and harm many of the body’s organs.
In conclusion, the human rights situation in Mauritania, particularly where women and girls are concerned, is extremely worrying. Females there are vulnerable to some of the most cruel and violent forms of abuse: child marriage, girl trafficking, rape, FGM, and force-feeding. In a society ruled by deeply entrenched patriarchal ideology this gender-based violence has been normalised and accepted. For too long, women and girls in Mauritania have been treated as mere tools for sexual exploitation and abuse, as second-class citizens free only to be manipulated and commodified, their bodies harmed and endangered. This is a travesty, one that has been ignored by the Mauritanian Government and the International Community. It is a travesty that has to end, now.