(Nouakchott) – The criminalization of sexual relations outside marriage in Mauritania puts rape survivors at risk, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The law deters them from filing complaints because they could themselves face prosecution.
The 90-page report, “‘They Told Me to Keep Quiet’: Obstacles to Justice and Remedy for Sexual Assault Survivors in Mauritania,” found that when survivors do come forward, police and judicial investigators do not respect their rights and dignity. Human Rights Watch found that investigative procedures do not ensure privacy or confidentiality, rarely offer the possibility to interact with female officials, and can turn into an investigation of the rape survivor’s moral character. Many survivors have limited access, if any, to legal aid, or medical, mental health, and social support.
“Women and girls should not run the risk of jail or further stigma for reporting sexual abuse,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “To combat sexual violence, Mauritania should require law enforcement and public health systems to stop treating victims as suspects, support them in seeking justice and recovery, and prosecute the perpetrators.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 33 girls and women who reported being raped, as well as members of nongovernmental groups, lawyers, and government officials. On July 12, Human Rights Watch sent a letter, with preliminary findings and requests for information to several ministries and bodies of the Mauritanian government. The Commission on Human Rights and Humanitarian Action coordinated a joint, detailed government response received on August 31, after the report finalization, available here.
Human Rights Watch found that survivors face social stigma and family pressures not to report rape to the authorities. The social worker with a local women’s rights group who supported a woman who reported being raped by a neighbor who threatened to kill her, described the demeanor of the state prosecutor who questioned the woman. “He asked her: ‘If you didn’t consent, why didn’t you tell your parents?’” she said. When the survivor said she knew the man who raped her, the prosecutor responded: “All the things you are saying are lies, you did this willingly.”
The prosecutor opened an investigation against the woman for sexual relations outside marriage, known as zina, and a judge placed her under judicial control during the two-month investigation.
A lack of forensic expertise and protocols for evidence collection by law enforcement and health professionals can weaken a survivor’s case in court, Human Rights Watch found. Most public hospitals offer limited emergency care, and often refuse to provide medical examinations of rape survivors without a police referral. Many survivors cannot afford emergency or long-term medical care. Rape survivors who become pregnant are not allowed to obtain an abortion, as Mauritanian law prohibits abortions except when the mother’s health is at risk.
Mauritania also lacks government-funded programs and facilities to ensure and support survivors’ safety, legal action, and recovery. The government operates no shelters for survivors who want, or are forced, to leave their home after an assault, or for women leaving prison after a zina conviction who have nowhere to turn. Nongovernmental groups are only able to provide limited short-term services to survivors, but this never includes the possibility of accommodation.
Survivors also risk prosecution if they cannot prove lack of consent, in part because the penal code currently does not define rape or the notion of consent and fails to criminalize other forms of sexual assault. The penal code punishes zina with flogging, jail time and, if the defendant is married or divorced, death by stoning. Because Mauritania does not carry out corporal punishments, people sentenced to flogging or death by stoning can find themselves imprisoned indefinitely, until Muslim legal scholars rule on commuting their sentence.
Though the government contends that no rape cases reported to the authorities have led to zina prosecutions in the last few years, women and girls interviewed said otherwise. In a July 2016 case, a 15-year-old who was repeatedly gang-raped by four men and held captive for two weeks said she was sent to prison after she revealed that she knew one of the men, who had promised to marry her and help her flee her abusive home.
Mauritania has recently moved to strengthen laws to protect the rights of women and girls. In March 2016, the government approved a draft law on gender-based violence that is pending before parliament. The law would define and punish rape and sexual harassment, create special criminal court chambers to hear sexual violence cases, and allow nongovernmental groups to bring cases on behalf of survivors. While a step in the right direction, the current draft falls short in several respects, including maintaining criminal charges for consensual sexual relations outside marriage and restrictions on abortion.