In conservative Mauritania, women seek tougher laws to battle sexual violence

NOUAKCHOTT (AFP) – Feminists in Mauritania are fighting an uphill battle to see tougher penalties for sexual violence and discrimination in a conservative state where criminal law is derived from Syariah.

“Few survivors of sexual assault dare to speak out in Mauritania,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report last September.

It blasted “a dysfunctional system that discourages victims from pressing charges (and) can lead to re-traumatisation or punishment”.

Women’s groups have helped to draft legislation to combat gender-based violence, calling for stiffer penalties for rape, criminalisation of sexual harassment and the creation of specific courts to handle sexual violence.

But the bill has been twice rejected by Parliament, despite efforts to craft text which is within the confines of Syariah law.

President of the Association of Women Heads of Family (AFCF) Aminetou El Moctar speaks during an interview in her office in Nouakchott on January 28. – AFP

Lawmakers objected to provisions allowing women to travel without their husbands’ permission, and permitting victim support groups to file civil suits.

Spearheading the struggle for change is the Association of Women Heads of Family (AFCF), whose president Aminetou El Moctar told AFP, “We need this law, because we know violence against women is soaring” – although statistics on the scourge are seriously lacking.

At AFCF’s offices, Zahra (not her real name), related how a neighbour snatched her five-year-old daughter from her home while she was sleeping, and then raped the girl.

Because of the girl’s young age and the fact that the rapist was a serial paedophile, he was quickly convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

But AFCF said that in Mauritania, convicted rapists rarely serve out their sentences.

“He will probably do a year at most,” said Mariem, a case worker. “After that he’ll be able to pay bail and get out on parole. Then, when there’s a general amnesty, he’ll benefit from it.”

That is why specific legislation is needed, women’s rights activists argue.

They hold periodic sit-ins at Parliament to demand passage of the law, noting that it was drafted by civil society, Islamic scholars and jurists and stayed within the bounds of Syariah law.

MPs from both the ruling party and the opposition voted down the bill in January 2017.

In December 2018, the draft did not even proceed past the Parliament’s Islamic Orientation Commission, which vets proposed law for its conformity with Syariah.