Rape and Domestic Violence: According to NGOs, the incidence of both reported and unreported rape continued to be high, and rape was considered a serious problem. Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal. In practice the government did not enforce the law effectively. According to the penal code, rapists who are single men face penalties of forced labor and flagellation. Married rapists could be subject to the death penalty. In practice rape cases rarely went to trial, but in contrast with 2011, there were five convictions of rape. In several cases wealthy rape suspects reportedly avoided prosecution or, if prosecuted, avoided prison. Families of the victim commonly reached an agreement with the rapist for monetary compensation. National statistics on arrests and prosecutions for rape were unavailable, but the Association of Female Heads of Families (AFCF) reported that 412 rapes had taken place between January 1and November 1.
Human rights activists and lawyers reported that rape victims were stigmatized, persecuted, and even imprisoned. Since rape is tied to the concept of adultery, judges could, in theory, accuse the victim of fornication under Sharia and hold the victim responsible for the rape, which could lead to imprisonment. During the year the local NGO, Mauritanian Association for the Health of Mothers and Children (AMSME), provided assistance to 127 girls and six adult women who were victims of sexual violence.
Domestic violence was a serious problem. Spousal abuse and domestic violence are illegal, but the government did not enforce the law effectively, and most cases went unreported. There are no specific penalties for domestic violence, and convictions were very rare. No reliable government statistics on prosecutions, convictions, and sentences for domestic violence were available. From January 1 to November 1, the AFCF provided legal assistance to 1,812 domestic violence victims.
Police and the judiciary occasionally intervened in domestic abuse cases, but women rarely sought legal redress, relying instead on family, NGOs, and community leaders to resolve domestic disputes. Many domestic violence cases were handled by a traditional judge under Sharia outside the secular system. NGOs reported that in certain cases they asked police for help to protect victims of domestic violence, but police declined to investigate. The AFCF and other women’s NGOs provided psychologists and shelter to some victims.
Harmful Traditional Practices: Traditional forms of mistreatment of women declined during the year. One of these is the forced feeding of adolescent girls (gavage) prior to marriage practiced only among White Moor tribal groups. Increased government, media, and civil society attention to the problem, including the health risks associated with excessive body weight, led to a marked decline in the traditional encouragement of female obesity.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): FGM/C was practiced primarily on young girls (see section 6, Children).
Sexual Harassment: There are no laws against sexual harassment. Women’s NGOs reported that it was a common problem in the workplace.
Reproductive Rights: The government recognized the right of individuals and couples to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to have the information and means to do so free from discrimination, violence, or coercion. Reproductive issues were a sensitive topic and a focus of some women’s groups. Government health centers did not provide unmarried women with access to contraception, and did so for married women only with the consent of the husband. Contraception was available at private health centers for those who could afford it. According to UNICEF, approximately 8 percent of women and girls in union ages 15-49 used a modern method of contraception.
In 2010 the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated the maternal mortality ratio to be 510 per 100,000 live births. The high rate was attributed to medical facilities lacking equipment, low participation by mothers in programs to promote prenatal care, births without the assistance of health professionals, poor sanitary conditions during birth, and maternal malnutrition. According to the UNFPA, skilled health personnel attended approximately 57 percent of births.
The AFCF stressed that these deficiencies applied in particular to poor women and women from traditionally lower castes such as slaves and former slaves, who also often lacked access to contraception, obstetric and postpartum care, and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. The AMSME, which operated a center in Nouakchott for rape victims, provided emergency contraception to victims.
Discrimination: Women have legal rights to property and child custody, and these rights were recognized among the more educated and urbanized members of the population. However, women had fewer legal rights than men. Divorced women could lose child custody if they remarried. According to common tradition, a woman’s first marriage requires parental consent. The personal status code states men can marry up to four women but are required to obtain the consent of their existing spouse or spouses before marrying again. Government awareness programs encouraged women to obtain a contractual agreement at the time of marriage stipulating that the marriage ends if the husband marries a second wife. This practice was common in Moor society. Nevertheless, women who did not establish a solid contract remained unprotected. In addition the validity of and right to establish prenuptial agreements was not always respected. Polygamy continued to be rare among Moors but was gaining in popularity. It was common among other ethnic groups. Arranged marriages were increasingly rare, particularly among the Moor population. Cultural resistance to intercaste marriage persisted, and NGOs reported that powerful individuals used the judicial system to intimidate and persecute members of their families who married below their social rank.
The law considers women to be minors, and women faced other legal discrimination. According to Sharia as applied in the country, the testimony of two women was necessary to equal that of one man. The courts granted only half as large an indemnity to the family of a woman who was killed as to the family of a male victim. The personal status code provides a framework for the consistent application of secular law and Sharia-based family law, but it was not uniformly employed. Formulas for property distribution varied widely from case to case. Human rights lawyers reported that judges treated differently cases concerning white Moor women, female slaves or other lower-caste women, and foreign women.
Women did not face legal discrimination in areas not addressed specifically by Sharia. The law provides that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work. The two largest employers, the civil service and the state mining company, observed this law, although most employers in the private sector did not. In the modern wage sector, women also received family benefits, including three months of maternity leave.
The government sought to open new employment opportunities for women in areas traditionally filled by men, such as diplomacy, health care, communications, police, and customs services. The International Labor Organization (ILO) reported a slight increase in female share of employment in high-status occupations from 28.2 percent in 2005 to 29.9 percent in 2010.
Women’s groups and national and international NGOs organized meetings, seminars, and workshops throughout the year to publicize women’s rights. On March 8, International Women’s Day, for the first time hundreds of women marched peacefully on the presidency in support of women’s rights. A senior government delegation welcomed the marchers on behalf of President Aziz. The government launched its own commemorative activities at a ceremony attended by UN Development Program representatives and approximately 80 women’s cooperatives.
On February 27, the AFCF launched an appeal for strengthened legal action against perpetrators of violence against women. Nouakchott declared August 13 a day of zero tolerance for sexual violence.