By George Fominyen
DAKAR (TrustLaw) – Mauritanian authorities must ensure enforcement of laws protecting women from gender-based violence and harmful traditional practices that endanger their lives, women’s rights groups in the West African nation said.
More than 3,000 women are expected to march through the streets of the country’s capital, Nouakchott, on International Women’s Day, and converge on the presidential palace to demand action from President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz.
“We want to draw attention to occurrences of domestic violence, rape, including marital rape, female genital mutilation/cutting and forced feeding that endanger women’s lives in the country,” said Zeinabou Mint Taleb Moussa, head of a Mauritanian association for mother and child health care.
We have draft proposals to amend current legislation that we would want to hand to the authorities,” she added in a phone interview from Nouakchott.
Campaigners say Mauritania has ratified various international conventions protecting women’s rights and has also enacted local laws on issues related to violence against women, but these are not fully implemented due to cultural and religious drawbacks.
For instance, Mauritanian law sentences people found guilty of rape to 15 years of imprisonment and a fine. In reality few cases ever reach the courts because women are concerned that they may end up being accused of fornication under Muslim Sharia law, said Mar Jubero, a women’s right campaigner in the country.
“Sometimes victims of rape find themselves in prison for fornication which is terrible,” said Jubero who is one of the organizers of the women’s march.
“If a woman is at home and somebody forcefully breaks into her house and rapes her, that can be considered as rape. But if a woman goes out, for example to dump rubbish, and she is raped, they would ask her what she was doing outside of the house,” she said.
“The woman could then be accused of provoking the man and she could find herself in prison,” added Jubero, who is also the coordinator of a forum on issues related to women’s rights.
In another example, Mauritania’s criminal procedure code prohibits female genital mutilation (FGM) but the practice continues because the law has hardly ever been applied, she said.
About 72 percent of the women in Mauritania have undergone FGM (also known as female circumcision) which health workers say often causes severe bleeding, problems urinating and potential complications during childbirth.
The civil society groups organizing the women’s march, which is the first of its kind in the generally conservative country, also want to push the government to withdraw reservations over certain aspects of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Mauritania has ratified the treaty but says it reserves the right not to implement parts which are deemed to be in conflict with the Muslim Sharia law in practice there, Taleb Moussa said.
As a result, women, who make up 52 percent of the country’s population of 3.5 million people, are still denied rights to inheritance. Men’s guardianship over adult women has not been lifted to allow women to choose their own husbands in a country where 19 percent of girls marry before the age of 15, rights groups say.
Some influential religious and traditional leaders have argued that issues such as FGM/C and forced feeding – where girls are fed to become round and fat to match traditional canons of beauty in the country – are part of the Mauritanian culture.
But the women’s groups say they have been reaching out to communities through moderate religious and community leaders to explain that they are not against culture but rather want to protect women from practices that endanger their health and lives.
Such work was highlighted in two years ago when a group of Muslim clerics and scholars declared a fatwa, or religious decree against the practice of FGM.
“Culture is always a positive thing when it does not harm a person’s physical integrity, so we must differentiate between what is a harmful traditional practice and what is a respected value to maintain,” Jubero said.
Women’s groups say they expect to be criticized for their actions and to be blamed for trying to impose foreign culture.
“We are aware that there is a potential security risk in championing such a cause but we are dedicated people,” Taleb Moussa said. “If we don’t act because of fear, then Mauritanian women shall remain subjected to violence forever which is a scarier perspective,” she added.
(Editing by Lisa Anderson)