The Mauritanian government says it is trying to increase prosecutions of rape cases but poorly trained judges working with murky, outdated legal texts make for slow progress.
The penal code, which is heavily based on Sharia or Islamic law, does not give a precise definition of sexual violence, said lawyer Bilal Ould Dik, so a judge’s personal point of view can strongly sway his conviction decision.
"Rape convictions are very rare [in Mauritania] because we are working with such unclear legal texts,” he told IRIN. As a result, “rapes often just end with a settlement between the family of the perpetrator and the victim”.
And, according to Dik, many judges automatically label sexual abuses as voluntary sexual relations occurring outside of marriage, known as the crime of ‘zina’ in Mauritania.
“For many judges, the rape victim is 50 percent responsible for what has happened to them,” said Zeinebou mint Taleb Moussam, chairwoman of non-governmental organisation (NGO) Mauritanian association for the health of mothers and children (AMSME).
While the number of reported rapes in the capital Nouakchott has tripled from 25 to 75 in the past year, according to Ahmed Seyfer head of child protection for UNICEF, next to none of the perpetrators were punished.
Stronger legal texts
The Mauritanian authorities tried to build more robust legal protection for children who have been sexually assaulted, on top of the penal code, by passing the Juvenile code in 2005.
Because of that Mauritanian children theoretically enjoy some of the strongest legal protection than children in any of their West African neighbours, according to Frederica Riccardi, representative of NGO Terre des Hommes.
With the code came the setting up of a government child protection department and a special police force to protect minors, while judges, policemen and social workers have been sent on training courses in how to implement the law.
But despite this, few judges are well-versed in its texts or well enough trained to implement them and thus fall back on the weaker penal code said Moussam of AMSME.
Men in Mauritania can still become judges with nothing more than an informal Koranic education, while women are barred from becoming magistrates.
And the lack of training extends to social workers and psychologists who are able to help victims. "It is only NGOs that currently provide support to victims, but we need trained educators and psychologists who can also do the job,” Moussa told IRIN.
Organisations such as AMSME help victims through their proceedings with police to report assaults, and through administrative procedures for conviction, as well as giving them psychological support if they need it.
But the real challenge is convincing rape victims to visit them in the first place, according to Moussa.
For her, getting more sexual assault cases prosecuted requires changing attitudes to sexual assault across society as well as better training for magistrates and justice reform. Until then, “the topic of sexual assault will remain taboo in this country,” she said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions