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Briefing to the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child concerning Mauritania

November 2017

This briefing is mainly based on research conducted by Human Rights Watch in Nouakchott in October 2017. We interviewed 15 families, including children from underprivileged neighborhoods of Nouakchott, and met with the director of a civil registration center and the Minister of Interior. It focuses on how lack of civil registration affects children’s access to primary and secondary education. It concludes with mention of the need to protect students, teachers, and schools during armed conflict.


In 2016-2017, the net primary school enrollment ratio in Mauritania was estimated to be 80.4 percent, with only 35 percent of children transitioning from primary to secondary school.[1] Although the government has adopted a nine-year national plan to develop its education sector, a lack of infrastructure and adequate supplies, scarcity of teachers, and teaching program quality in public schools remain of concern.[2] Such grievances have recently sparked grassroots mobilization of secondary school students whose organizing efforts were reportedly met with repressive means.[3]

In May 2011, the government launched a national biometric civil registration (“enrôlement à l’état civil”) campaign.[4] Since, civil registration is mandatory for all Mauritanian nationals and residents.[5] For a child to register, her/his legal guardians must, at a minimum, provide the child’s birth certificate, a copy of the parents’ or caregivers’ national identity card (or death certificate) and a copy of the parents’ marriage certificate.[6] Once a child is registered, s/he receives a National Identification Number, often necessary to access health and social services. Formalities imposed by the civil registration process do not match the social reality of certain demographics or regions of the country where births, marriages, and deaths were not formally recorded by state officials until recently.[7] Families who cannot provide the required documents or afford the costs of the procedure, including Mauritanian nationals, end up deprived of civil status and associated entitlements.

In June 2017, Mauritania’s Minister of Social Affairs, Childhood and Family estimated that 44 percent of births are not registered, preventing children from obtaining national identity documents that they need to proceed through the education system.[8]

Civil registration and access to education (Articles 3, 6, 11)

Civil registration

All interviewees said that they had repeatedly attempted to obtain civil registration for themselves or their children and failed for one of the following reasons: loss of the child’s birth certificate, errors with the national identity number they were assigned, mismatch of identification information from data collected in 1998 for nationals who participated in Mauritania’s national census abroad, foreign father or father with no civil registration (regardless of the mother’s registration status and existing national identity documents), child born out of wedlock (“enfant naturel”), absence or loss of parents’ marriage certificate, or fees they could not afford.

Children require civil registration (“enrôlement à l’état civil”) and national identity documents to enroll in public school. In 2016, the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Education adopted a joint memorandum addressed to all regional governors providing that “no student shall be enrolled in a public or private educational institution unless the registration process has been completed in the manner stipulated by Law.”[9] The memorandum also provided that no one shall be permitted to sit for national examinations or tests unless they have completed biometric registration procedures and possess a national identity card.”[10]

This requirement is not discriminatory on its face, and Human Rights Watch did not conduct a study to determine if it adversely affected different parts of the population more than others.  What is clear is that it prevents many Mauritanians from marginalized groups—unable to obtain civil registration for administrative or financial reasons—from enrolling in public schools and taking national examinations.

The parents interviewed by Human Rights Watch described the civil registration process variously as “confusing” and “time-consuming,” denounced the lack of proper guidance offered by the administration, and deplored the costs of the procedure.

Barriers to Enrollment in Public Schools

Many families reported to Human Rights Watch that when they tried to enroll their children in primary or secondary school, the school administration required them to provide a proof of the child’s civil registration and national identity documents, which most lacked, as detailed above. Children who are denied admission to public school are left with two options: applying to private schools or dropping out. Many families who live in extreme poverty cannot afford the costs of private education.

A small number were able to make ad hoc arrangements with a teacher or school director for their children to attend classes in public schools. Few of them were able to take the “concours” (national examination at the end of primary school), none were able to take secondary school national examinations (“brevêt”or “baccalauréat”).

National Examinations

For all the families interviewed, national examinations represent a key obstacle to academic progress in the absence of civil registration or national identity documents. Children are required to take three national examinations during primary and secondary education: the “concours” at the end of primary school; the “brevêt” at the end of the first cycle of secondary school (“collège”); and the “baccalauréat” at the end of the second cycle of secondary school (“lycée”). Such tests are all filtering examinations required for children to enroll in the next education cycle. Several interviewees reported having to leave school after being prevented from taking a national examination that they must pass in order to enroll in junior or senior high school. In such cases, children have to leave school without academic certifications. They often decide to work and are constrained to take lower-skilled jobs with no employment security. In May 2016, the UN Children’s Fund estimated that approximately 15% of children aged 5 to 14 worked in Mauritania.[11]

Human Rights Watch recommends the Committee that it ask the government of Mauritania:

  • What type of support, if any, is provided to families who lack the financial means and literacy skills to obtain a civil registration for their children?
  • How many children have been denied permission to take a national examination because they had no civil registration since 2011?
  • How is the government ensuring that students enrolled in primary and secondary schools can take national examinations despite their lack of civil registration?

Human Rights Watch recommends the Committee to call upon the government to:

  • Clarify civil registration procedures by effectively explaining required supporting documents and providing financial support to underprivileged applicants at a community level.
  • Guide and provide tailored administrative assistance with civil registration procedures to students in need at least a year before any primary or secondary school national examination (“concours, brevêt, baccalauréat”).
  • Allow children, born or residing in Mauritania, to enroll in public school and take national examinations independent of the civil registration status of their parents.

The protection of education during armed conflict (Articles 11, 22)

The African Union Peace and Security Council has urged Mauritania to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration, an international political commitment that sets out concrete measures that states can take to better protect education during armed conflict, including using the Guidelines on Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use.[12] Mauritania’s 745 troops and 15 staff officers who participate in UN peacekeeping operations are already obliged to follow the UN’s requirement to not use schools in their operations.[13]

Human Rights Watch recommends to the Committee that it ask the government of Mauritania:

  • What protections do Mauritania’s armed forces offer to deter the use of schools for military purposes?

Human Rights Watch recommends the Committee to call upon the government to:

  • Endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration.






[1] Mauritania’s Ministry of Education, “Annual Report of Education Data, School year 2016-2017,” (“Annuaire des statistiques scolaires, Année scolaire 2016-2017”), undated, (accessed November 28, 2017), pp. 9, 69

[2] National Program to Develop the Education Sector (2011-2020), Mai 2011, . See also Global Partnership For Education, “Mauritania,” undated, (accessed November 20, 2017).

[3] See, for example, Amadou Sy, “Grève du lycée de Sélibaby : Détention, négociations, promesses,” Le Reflet, November 16, 2017, (accessed November 20, 2017).

[4] Law reform 2011-003 created a national electronic registry of people residing in Mauritania and provided for the establishment of local registration centers (“centre d’accueil des citoyens”) throughout the country. See Articles 2 and 5, Law 2011—003 abrogating and replacing Law 96.019 of June 19, 1996 creating a National Code of Civil Status (“Loi n°2011—003 abrogeant et remplaçant la loi n°96.019 du 19 Juin 1996 portant Code de l’Etat Civil”).

[5] Id.

[6] List of documents provided by the director of the civil registration center in the district of Sebkha, Nouakchott. See also Mariem Baba Ahmed, “Étude sur les obstacles à l’enrôlement à l’état civil, Programme d’Appui au Renforcement de l’État de Droit en République Islamique de Mauritanie,” October 2016, p. 33 [hereinafter, Baba Ahmed].

[7]  Baba Ahmed, p. 43 onward.

[8] Mauritania’s National Information Agency, Celebration of the Day of the African child and the orphan in the Muslim world (“Commémoration de la journée de l'enfant africain et de l'orphelin dans le monde musulman”), June 16, 2017, (accessed November 20, 2017).

[9] Joint Memorandum of Mauritania’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Interior, April 20, 2016.

[10] Id.

[11] UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Data: Monitoring the Situation of Children and Women, Child Labour, Current Status and Progress, May 2016, (accessed November 20, 2017).

[12] African Union Peace and Security Council, 597th Meeting, “Press Statement,” May 10, 2016, (accessed on July 15, 2016); 615th meeting, “Press statement,” August 9, 2016, (accessed October 9, 2017); 692nd meeting, “Press statement,” June 13, 2017, (accessed November 3, 2017); Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, (accessed October 19, 2016); Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, (accessed October 19, 2016).

[13] United Nations Infantry Battalion Manual, 2012, section 2.13, “Schools shall not be used by the military in their operations.”

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