Women in Mauritania who press charges for sexual assault face the risk of jail time because of poorly defined laws and stigma that criminalise victims rather than offenders, according to a local UN-funded non-profit.
The subject of rape is still so taboo in Mauritania that there is no mention of it in the law and the word is absent from government documents, according to the NGO Mauritanian Association for Maternal and Child Health, based in the capital Nouakchott. “The problem of decriminalising the victim is [that] the law does not define rape. How do you punish offenders if you have not clarified the crime?” the association’s legal adviser Bilal Ould Dick said.
Sexual violence is referred to as “injuries” in Health Ministry documents, while the Ministry of Social Welfare, Children and Family refers to it as “domestic violence” in official documents, said the non-profit’s president Zeinebou Mint Taleb.
Aminetou (not her real name), 22, told IRIN the police accused her of not having honour when she reported to them that she had been raped at night in her home by someone she did not know. “The police said that if I had not [been willing] to give [my virginity], it could not have been taken.” She said at 22 years old, she has lost her honour, dropped out of a computer training programme and can no longer marry as a result of her attempt to press charges.
“No one will accept me anymore. For my community, they think I just liked sex and in return for this ‘sin’, I deserve to lose everything,” she said.
Legal adviser Dick said the only parts of the law that criminalise any sexual act are two articles prohibiting sex between unmarried persons. As a result, he said, many alleged rape victims are accused of violating the law. “The [woman] will be charged and punished instead of being legally protected.”
|The police said that if I had not [been willing] to give [my virginity], it could not have been taken|
He said the situation is even worse for pregnant women since the pregnancy is seen as “proof” of their crime. Seven women have been imprisoned in 2009 on charges of violating the no-sex between unmarried persons legal code after they had tried to denounce alleged offenders, according to the Mauritanian Association for Maternal and Child Health.
NGO president Taleb said if men are interrogated or detained, they are soon released because of “lack of evidence”.
Matty Mint Doide with the Ministry of Social Welfare, Children and Family told IRIN the government is revising the penal code to define and criminalise rape and to “apply related international conventions [against sexual violence]”. Conventions against sexual and gender-based violence include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Human Rights Commissioner Mohamed Lemine Ould Dadde told IRIN the government is committed to defending women’s rights. He denied that women in Mauritania are unfairly criminalised for reporting sexual violence crimes and said Mauritania grapples with encouraging victims to speak out as all countries do.
Since 2003 there have been 430 declared cases of sexual violence in Mauritania and 28,000 reports of domestic violence, according to the government. Women have pressed charges in only 20 percent of the cases, according to the Social Welfare Ministry.
But the Association for Maternal and Child Health’s Eyer Chaim, who is posted in the Nouakchott police commissioner’s office in a division that handles crimes against children, told IRIN the real number of victims far surpasses public records. “I knew so many victims who refused to report to the police or go for treatment. They prefer suffering in silence to hide their disgrace from a gossiping community.”
Local journalist Nourra Mint Semane told IRIN it is difficult to talk about rape at all levels in Mauritania. “My radio programmes are censored when I cover rape stories. For Mauritanian society, rape is a shame that must be buried and the biggest ‘criminal’ is [seen as] the victim herself.”