Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape, including spousal rape, is illegal. Rapists who are single men face penalties of forced labor and whipping, and married rapists are subject to the death penalty. The government regularly enforced the law; 39 persons were convicted under the law and received various sentences. Nevertheless, as in years past, wealthy rape suspects reportedly avoided prosecution or, if prosecuted, avoided prison. Families of the victim commonly reached an agreement with the perpetrator for monetary compensation.
Local NGOs noted the incidence of both reported and unreported rape continued to be high, with the reported cases just a small fraction of the true total. National statistics on arrests and prosecutions for rape were unavailable, but the Association of Female Heads of Families (AFCF) reported 165 rapes between January and August, a marked decrease of 13 percent compared with 2015.
Between January and August, NGO Association for Health of Mother and Child reported 122 cases of registered rape in Nouakchott. Of these, 108 victims were minor girls, a net decrease compared with 159 cases reported in 2015.
Human rights activists and lawyers reported that rape victims were stigmatized, persecuted, and even imprisoned. Since rape is often associated with the concept of adultery, judges could, in theory, accuse the victim of fornication under sharia, hold the victim responsible for the rape, and imprison the victim. There were no reports this provision or interpretation of the law was enforced.
Domestic violence was also a serious problem. Spousal abuse and domestic violence are illegal, but there are no specific penalties for domestic violence. The government did not enforce the law effectively, and convictions were rare. Most cases went unreported. No reliable government statistics on prosecutions, convictions, and sentences for domestic violence were available. As of September the AFCF identified 1,225 cases of domestic violence (a 50 percent decrease compared with 2015).
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. Traditional sharia judges handled many domestic violence cases. 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.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): The law states that any act or attempt to damage a girl’s sexual organs is punishable by imprisonment and a fine of 120,000 to 300,000 ouguiyas ($343 to $857). Nevertheless, authorities seldom applied the law, since the accompanying implementing law remained provisional.
FGM/C was practiced by all ethnic groups to varying degrees and performed on young girls, often on the seventh day after birth and almost always before the age of six months. Excision was the most severe form of FGM/C practiced. A 2013 UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report estimated the prevalence among women at 69.4 percent, its prevalence among girls ages five to 18 at 54.8 percent, and its prevalence among girls under five at 46.6 percent.
During the year the government entered the third phase of the five-year FGM/C action plan, which aims to reinforce FGM/C policy and law, offer education and community support, encourage public declarations of FGM/C abandonment, and establish partnerships and public outreach campaigns. The government’s program, which extends to 2017, focused on communities in the regions of Gorgol, Guidimaka, Hodh El Gharbi, Hodh El Chargui, Assaba, and Tagant. The program worked through five local NGOs to create association networks to conduct awareness campaigns against FGM/C.
During the year the government focused its efforts on the creation of the anti-FGM/C regional networks to denounce the practice of FGM/C; eight networks announced the abandonment of the practice.
The government, international organizations, and NGOs continued to coordinate their anti-FGM/C efforts, which focused on eradicating the practice in hospitals, discouraging midwives from performing FGM/C, and educating the population and elected officials on its dangers. The government, UN Population Fund (UNFPA), UNICEF, the National Imams’ Association, and other members of civil society emphasized the serious health risks of FGM/C and sought to correct the widespread belief the practice was a religious requirement. The law prohibits government hospitals and licensed medical practitioners from performing FGM/C, and several government agencies worked to prevent others from perpetrating it. UNFPA had an agreement with the National School of Health to integrate FGM/C awareness into training curricula for midwives and nurses. According to several women’s rights experts, these efforts appeared to be changing popular attitudes.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: Traditional forms of mistreatment of women continued to decline. One of these is the forced feeding of adolescent girls prior to marriage, practiced by some Beydane families. Increased government, media, and civil society attention to the problem, including the health risks associated with excessive body weight, continued to lessen traditional encouragement of female obesity.
Sexual Harassment: There are no laws against sexual harassment. Women’s NGOs reported that it was a common problem in the workplace.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children, and to manage their reproductive health, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence, but they often lacked the information to do so. Contraception was available at private health centers for those who could afford it. The UN Population Division estimated 12.5 percent of girls and women between the ages of 15 and 49 used a modern method of contraception in 2015.
The World Health Organization estimated the maternal mortality rate to be 602 per 100,000 live births, and a lifetime risk of maternal mortality of one in 36. The UNFPA estimated 21 percent of women ages 20-24 had given birth before the age of 18. The high maternal mortality rate was due to lack of medical equipment, low participation by mothers in programs promoting prenatal care, births without the assistance of health professionals, poor sanitary conditions during birth, maternal malnutrition, and high rates of adolescent pregnancy. According to UNICEF, skilled health personnel attended approximately 64.5 percent of births.
The AFCF stressed that these deficiencies applied in particular to poor women or to those from traditionally lower castes, such as slaves and former slaves, who often lacked access to contraception, obstetric and postpartum care, and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. The Mauritanian Association for the Health of Mothers and Children, 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 the more educated and urbanized members of the population recognized these rights. Nevertheless, women had fewer legal rights than men. Divorced women, for example, could lose child custody if they remarried. According to common tradition, a woman’s first marriage requires parental consent. The personal status code permits men to have up to four wives at the same time, but they are required to treat them equally. Government awareness programs encouraged women to obtain a contractual agreement at the time of marriage stipulating the marriage will end if the husband marries a second wife. This practice was common in Moor (Arab) society. Women who did not establish a solid contract remained unprotected. Moreover, government authorities did not always respect either the validity of such prenuptial agreements or the right to establish them. Polygyny continued to be relatively unusual among Moors, although its popularity has grown. The practice was more common among sub-Saharan ethnic groups. Arranged marriages were increasingly rare, particularly among the Moor population. Cultural resistance to intercaste marriage persisted. NGOs continued to report that powerful individuals used the judicial system to intimidate and persecute members of their families who married below their social rank.
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 female victim as that accorded 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 judicial officials did not always respect it. Formulas for property distribution therefore varied widely from case to case. Human rights lawyers also reported judges treated differently cases concerning Beydane/Arab women, female slaves or low caste women, non-Arab citizen women, and foreign women.