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Human Rights Watch Submission to the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on Mauritania

69th Pre-Session

We write in advance of the 69th pre-session of the Committee on the Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights’ review of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (CESCR).

  1. Access to Education (arts. 2 and 13)  

Civil Registration as a Barrier to Children’s Access to School

Human Rights Watch in 2018 found that Mauritania’s national civil registration process, which began in 2011, prevented some children from attending public school and taking mandatory national examinations.[1] To complete the registration process, citizens and non-citizen residents are required to produce a range of official paperwork, but many people lacked the necessary documents and have found the process of obtaining them arduous. People who lack a national ID card are effectively stateless – they cannot vote, own land, or qualify for government benefits, and face obstacles to attending school and taking national exams.[2]

Families told Human Rights Watch that some public schools rejected pupils who lacked civil registration, even though school attendance is compulsory from ages 6 to 14.[3] Some children without the required documentation were able to enroll – often thanks to the leniency of a school administrator or by enrolling in private or Quranic schools – but still cannot take the national tests they must pass to graduate from elementary, middle, and high school.

Despite attempts to standardize the civil registration procedures, local rules governing registration are often passed on orally, and rules are not applied consistently across civil registration centers.

All the families interviewed by Human Rights Watch in its 2018 report who lacked the required documentation for school attendance are of modest means and are from traditional Mauritanian slave castes in the Black Moor (Haratine) or Afro-Mauritanian communities. Some Mauritanian civic groups claim the civil registration process discriminates against these communities, though the government denies this.[4] State schools that primarily cater to these groups “lack teachers or fall into disrepair,” according to some media reports, or are seriously understaffed.[5]

Gender Inequalities

School completion rates at the primary and lower secondary levels evince inequities between boys and girls.[6] According to UNICEF, between 2012 and 2018, only 56 percent of girls completed primary school, compared to 64 percent of boys.[7] Within the same timeframe, only 34 percent of girls completed lower secondary school, compared to 42 percent of boys.[8] At the upper secondary level, boys and girls completed school at similar rates.[9]

Covid-19

Covid-19 related school closures and other measures geared toward minimizing the spread of the novel coronavirus have impacted children’s abilities to attend school and obtain an education. The Ministry of Education closed all schools nationwide on March 16, 2020, forcing approximately 943,000 students, almost 60 percent of whom were boys, to remain home, and introduced a gradual re-opening of schools in mid-January 2021.[10]

Distance learning measures relied heavily on the distribution of school materials online and via television and radio, but failed to ensure that children without access to these technologies could still fulfill their right to education.[11] According to DataReportal, as of January 2021, out of a population of 4.7 million, only 1.56 million Mauritanians are internet users (about 33 percent).[12] Data remain unclear regarding the number and gender breakdown of students supported in distance or home-based learning.[13]

Additionally, the education ministry’s response plan, published in May 2020, did not explicitly include strategies or proposals geared towards reaching out-of-school children.[14] UNICEF estimates only about 1,200 0ut-of-school boys and girls aged 3-17 are receiving learning materials.[15]

In May 2021, Human Rights Watch documented how at a global level, school closures in response to the Covid-19 pandemic tended to disproportionately harm students from groups facing discrimination and exclusion from education even before the pandemic, including children who are ethnic and racial minorities in the countries where they live, and girls, especially in countries where gender inequalities already exist in school enrollment and achievements.[16] Children least likely to have access to distance learning materials include those with disabilities, for whom online material is not always adapted, and those from low-income, marginalized, or rural areas.[17]

Protection of Education from Attack

Mauritania is a member of the G5 Sahel, an alliance of five countries that cooperate on security, including in countries where attacks on education have been documented.[18] As of January 2021, Mauritania has 750 troops, experts, police, and staff deployed to UN peacekeeping missions in the Central African Republic and Mali.

Military and peacekeeping troops are required to refrain from actions that impede children’s access to education and to not use schools in their military operations.[19] Attacks on students and schools, and the use of schools for military purposes, disproportionately affect girls.[20]

The Safe Schools Declaration is an inter-governmental political commitment that provides countries the opportunity to express political support for the protection of students, teachers, and schools during times of armed conflict; the importance of the continuation of education during armed conflict; and the implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.[21] As of January 2021, 106 countries have endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration—including all fellow G5 Sahel countries. However, Mauritania has yet to do so.

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • Does the government’s vaccination plan align with the World Health Organization values framework, endorsed by the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization, for the allocation and prioritization of COVID-19 vaccination?
  • What measures are in place to ensure all children have access to education while schools are closed, including the use of technologies that are already accessible to them or otherwise equitably distributed?
  • What efforts are being taken to ensure materials so far distributed online and via radio and television are adapted for the communication strategies of children with different types of disabilities?
  • What measures of targeted support are in place to reach out-of-school children even those in remote and rural areas, and provide them with a quality education?
  • What steps are being taken to ensure that all children residing in Mauritania have access to free public primary and secondary education, regardless of their civil registration status?
  • How is the government conducting outreach to families who have yet to complete the civil registration process, especially families with students who have yet to complete their mandatory school examinations?
  • When will the government endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration to deter the military use of schools?
  • Do any laws and policies, or trainings to armed forces provide explicit protection for schools and universities from military use during armed conflict?
  1. Access to Quality Health Care (arts. 2, 3, and 12)

Inadequate Medical, Mental Health, and Legal Support Services for Survivors of Gender-Based Violence

Authorities provide inadequate medical, mental health, and legal support services to survivors of sexual violence, according to Human Rights Watch research.[22] In May 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed a young woman who was repeatedly sexually abused by her father and was pregnant in 2018 as a result of rape by him.[23] The lack of shelters in Nouakchott and lack of government support left this woman with no alternative to living in her abusive home, taking care of her newborn, with a father who continues to be physically violent. The gender-based violence law pending before parliament would oblige the government to create shelters with short and long-term accommodation options for survivors.

The alarming lack of medical services for survivors of sexual violence is compounded by a general shortage of doctors across the country. In the 2018 report, Human Rights Watch found that conventional obstetrician-gynecologists performed non-standardized forensic examinations of sexual violence survivors, and that there was only one practicing forensic doctor in the country.[24] The state does not permit midwives to perform forensic examinations, despite calls for them to be allowed to do so by nongovernmental organizations because there are more female midwives than female doctors. According to local NGO representatives whom Human Rights Watch spoke to in 2019, in most public hospitals and health centers, the doctor who examines and performs forensic testing on sexual violence survivors is likely to be a man.[25]

Fear of retaliation also dissuades doctors from performing forensic examinations and issuing medical reports that may be used to prosecute alleged perpetrators. Moreover, sometimes doctors in Mauritania refuse to examine rape survivors unless they have a police referral, forcing many women and girls to report their attack to the police just to get medical care.[26]

Female Genital Mutilation and “Virginity Testing”

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is practiced in Mauritania despite the fact that the country’s General Code on Children’s Protection, adopted in 2017, unconditionally criminalizes it.[27]

2019 World Bank data suggests that up to 90 percent of Mauritanian women and girls aged 15-49 years have undergone some form of FGM in their lifetime; the majority of mutilations are performed by traditional practitioners.[28] Women and girls from rural communities and those who have not completed secondary schooling are more likely to have experienced FGM than those from urban areas and those who have completed their education.[29]

In recent years, the government has attempted to address the issue more proactively by adopting national strategies, including by establishing national and regional councils on gender-based violence and FGM with the aim to progressively eradicate this harmful practice.[30] However, gaps in legal enforcement against FGM and a lack of public awareness of its harms remain. There are no records of any prosecutions for cases of FGM performed in recent years.[31] Freedom House in 2020 reported the law against FGM is “rarely enforced.”[32] Moreover, only about half of women and girls aged 15-49 years who have heard of FGM think the practice should stop, according to 2020 surveys conducted by UNICEF.[33]

“Virginity” testing sometimes takes place during forensic examinations when treating survivors of sexual violence. According to a lawyer Human Rights Watch spoke to in 2018, “virginity tests are automatic in forensic exams performed in rape cases, and rape is usually only recognized when a girl’s hymen is broken as a result of the assault.[34] Human Rights Watch also reviewed several medical certificates prepared by doctors who forensically examined survivors of sexual assault and many commented on the state of the survivor’s hymen. Such tests are discriminatory, degrading, and in breach of World Health Organization guidelines which deems “virginity” tests as having “no scientific validity.”[35]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • What steps is Mauritania taking to remedy problems that prevent survivors of sexual violence from seeking medical treatment? For instance, are there any measures to ensure that women survivors of sexual violence can be examined by women medical professionals and any measures to prohibit doctors from requiring police referrals to provide medical treatment?
  • What steps are being taken to prohibit forced “virginity” tests and ensuring that forensic examination for sexual assault abides by World Health Organization guidelines?
  • What is the status of the draft law on violence against women, stalled in parliament since 2016? Please clarify what consultation is being done with civil society including prominent nongovernmental women’s rights groups on the draft law?
  • What guidelines, trainings, or procedures are in place to change attitudes among police, prosecutors, judges, health professionals, social workers, and teachers to help address FGM, virginity testing, and gender-based violence?
  • How is the government working to change the cultural acceptance of FGM?
  1. Access to Decent, Safe, and Healthy Living and Working Conditions for All People (arts. 2, 3, 6, 7, and 11), and Special Protections for Children (art. 10)

Haratine and Afro-Mauritanian Communities

The Global Slavery Index, which measures forced labor and forced marriage, estimated in 2018 that there are 90,000 people living in “modern slavery” in Mauritania, or 2.4 percent of the population, while 62 percent is “vulnerable” to modern slavery.[36]

Adults and children from traditional slave castes in the Haratine and Afro-Mauritanian communities remain exposed to hereditary slavery practices such as forced labor without pay as domestic servants or farm laborers. As such, their access to basic rights, including education, health care, voting, and other social services can be impeded.[37] The OECD reports women and girls from these communities are vulnerable to sexual violence and rape.[38]

Many who escape or are freed from slavery practices live in what some have described as “niche settlements” or “slums.”[39] Despite no longer living in slavery, many former slaves and their descendants’ access to basic rights can be affected by anti-Black racism or their status as former slaves.[40]

The government routinely denies or otherwise downplays the existence of slavery in Mauritania.

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • What mechanisms are there in place to accurately determine the number of Mauritanians subjected to slavery and slavery-like conditions, as well as forced and bonded labor conditions?
  • What legislative efforts are being made to eliminate slavery, forced labor and other forms of ‘modern-day slavery’ in Mauritania?

Migrants

In 2020 and 2021, Human Rights Watch documented cases of arbitrary and abusive arrests and detention by Mauritanian police and gendarmes of migrants intercepted at sea, arrested on Mauritanian territory, or deported from Spain’s Canary Islands.[41] Human Rights Watch also documented arbitrary and collective expulsions of migrants by Mauritanian authorities to Mali’s land borders.

Human Rights Watch spoke with a dozen migrants who described experiencing or witnessing detention without due process, unaccompanied children detained with unrelated adults, abuse during arrest and detention, and poor conditions in detention, including failure to provide adequate food and sanitation. Such treatment violates their rights, as monitored by this Committee, to safe and healthy living conditions, including the right to adequate food. The alleged detention of migrant children with adults violates the right of children to special measures of protection and assistance.

The alleged abuses took place in a context of increased migration from western Africa to the Canary Islands (the “Atlantic route”) during 2020 and into 2021, pressure from the EU and Spain to combat irregular migration flows, and increasing migration cooperation between Spain and Mauritania.[42]  Mauritania is required to “respect, protect, and fulfill” the human rights of everyone, regardless of their migration status, as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has noted.[43]

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • What plans or policies are in place to ensure that any facilities used for purposes of immigration detention meet appropriate standards of health and safety, providing adequate food, sanitation, and medical care to detainees?
  • What plans or policies are in place to ensure: that police, gendarmes, and other state agents screen arrested or detained migrants for age, and that migrant children are referred to appropriate child protection services and never placed in detention?
 

[1] Human Rights Watch news release, “Mauritania: Administrative Obstacles Keep Kids from School,” March 29, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/03/29/mauritania-administrative-obstacles-keep-kids-school; see also “Submission by Human Rights Watch to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child Concerning Mauritania – 79th Pre-Sessional Working Group,” June 5, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/06/05/submission-human-rights-watch-united-nations-committee-rights-child-concerning.

[2] Sebastian Kohn, “Fear and Statelessness in Mauritania,” Open Society Foundation, October 3, 2011, https://www.#/voices/fear-and-statelessness-mauritania (accessed May 25, 2017); OHCHR, “End-of-mission statement on Mauritania, by Professor Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights,” May 11, 2016, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=19948&LangID=E (accessed November 8, 2017); and UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on his mission to Mauritania, March 8, 2017.

[3]  Law 2001-054 of July 19, 2001 regarding the obligation to attend primary school (“Loi n° 2001-054 du 19 juillet 2001 portant obligation de l'enseignement fundamental”) made primary school education mandatory for all children aged 6-14 years old and free for children enrolled in public schools; See “Mauritania: Administrative Obstacles Keep Kids from School,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 29, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/03/29/mauritania-administrative-obstacles-keep-kids-school

[4] Joint report by the Association of Women Heads of Households, Coalition of Mauritanian Educational Organisations, and the Global Initiatives for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, “Privatisation and Sale of Public School Lands in Mauritania,” August 2018, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5a6e0958f6576ebde0e78c18/t/5bfc20354ae237e15d67ede1/1543249998205/Rapport_Droit_%E2%80%A1_l%27%C3%88ducation_et_privatisation_Mauritanie_CDE_-_juillet_2018_-_final+-+EN+v2.pdf; also see Human Rights Watch report, “”Ethnicity, Discrimination, and Other Red Lines: Repression of Human Rights Defenders in Mauritania,” February 12, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/02/12/ethnicity-discrimination-and-other-red-lines/repression-human-rights-defenders.

[5] “Unshackled Yet Far From Free, Former Slaves Struggle in Mauritania,” VOA News, March 4, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/africa/unshackled-yet-far-free-former-slaves-struggle-mauritania; Amandla Thomas-Johnson, “‘It’s time for a change’: anti-slavery activist Biram seeks power in Mauritania election,” Middle East Eye, June 22, 2019, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/its-time-change-anti-slavery-activist-biram-seeks-power-mauritania-election (accessed August 23, 2021); Joint Submission to the UN Committee of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on Mauritania, Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization and The Sahel Foundation,   September 2018, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CRC/Shared%20Documents/MRT/INT_CRC_NGO_MRT_32030_E.docx.

[6] UNICEF, “State of the World’s Children -  2019,” Table 10, page 229, https://www.unicef.org/media/63016/file/SOWC-2019.pdf

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mauritanian Ministry of Education, “Education Plan in Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic – Final Report,” May 2020, education.gov.mr/IMG/pdf/planripostecovid19.pdf

[11] Ibid; UNICEF report, “Mauritania Humanitarian Situation Report No. 3, Reporting Period 1 January to 30 June, 2021,” UNICEF, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/UNICEF%20Mauritania%20Humanitarian%20Situation%20Report%20No.3_Mid%20Year%20-%2026%20July%202021.pdf

[12] DataReportal, “Digital 2021: Mauritania” February 12, 2021, https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-mauritania (accessed August 20, 2021).

[13] UNICEF report, “Mauritania Humanitarian Situation Report No. 3, Reporting Period 1 January to 30 June, 2021,” UNICEF, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/UNICEF%20Mauritania%20Humanitarian%20Situation%20Report%20No.3_Mid%20Year%20-%2026%20July%202021.pdf

[14] Mauritanian Ministry of Education, “Education Plan in Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic – Final Report,” May 2020, education.gov.mr/IMG/pdf/planripostecovid19.pdf

[15] Ibid.

[16] Human Rights Watch report, “ ‘Years Don’t Wait for Them,’ Increased Inequalities in Children’s Right to Education Due to the Covid-19 Pandemic,” May 17, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/report/2021/05/17/years-dont-wait-them/increased-inequalities-childrens-right-education-due-covid

[17] Ibid.

[18] Education Under Attack: 2020, The Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, 2020, https://eua2020.protectingeducation.org/.

[19] United Nations Infantry Battalion Manual, 2012, section 2.13, “Schools shall not be used by the military in their operations;” UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support and Department of Political Affairs, “Child Protection in UN Peace Operations (Policy),” June 2017.

[20] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, General Recommendation No. 30, Access to Education, U.N Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/30 (2013), para. 48.

[21] Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/departementene/ud/vedlegg/utvikling/safe_schools_declaration.pdf; Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict, March 18, 2014, http://protectingeducation.org/sites/default/files/documents/guidelines_en.pdf.

[22] Human Rights Watch Report, “They Told Me to Keep Quiet: Obstacles to Justice and Remedy for Sexual Assault Survivors in Mauritania.”

[23] “Letter to President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani Re: Women’s Rights and Gender-Based Violence,” Human Rights Watch, October 15, 2019,  https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/10/15/letter-president-mohamed-ould-ghazouani

[24] Human Rights Watch Report, “They Told Me to Keep Quiet: Obstacles to Justice and Remedy for Sexual Assault Survivors in Mauritania,” September 5, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/09/05/they-told-me-keep-quiet/obstacles-justice-and-remedy-sexual-assault-survivors.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] General Code on Children’s Protection, arts. 79 and 80; Law on Reproductive Health, arts. 11 and 12.

[28] Cetorelli et. al, “Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Mali and Mauritania: Understanding Trends and Evaluating Policies,” March 2020, available https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/sifp.12112

[29] Ibid.

[30] National Human Rights Commission, Annual Report 2016, p. 34. See also NHRC, Report on Women’s Rights 2017, p. 21. UNFPA-UNICEF Report, “Joint Programme on Female Genital Cutting: Accelerating Change, 2008-2012,” September 2013, https://www.unfpa.org/sites/default/files/admin-resource/FGM-report%2012_4_2013.pdf.

[31] 28 Too Many and Thomas Reuters Foundation Report, “Mauritania: The Law and FGM,” September 2018, https://www.orchidproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/mauritania_law_report_v1_september_2018.pdf.

[32] Freedom House Report, “Mauritania – Freedom in the World 2020,” https://freedomhouse.org/country/mauritania/freedom-world/2020 (accessed February 8, 2021).

[33] UNICEF Factsheet, “The UNICEF Approach to the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation,” October 2020, https://www.unicef.org/media/88751/file/FGM-Factsheet-2020.pdf.

[34] Human Rights Watch Report, “They Told Me to Keep Quiet: Obstacles to Justice and Remedy for Sexual Assault Survivors in Mauritania,” September 5, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/09/05/they-told-me-keep-quiet/obstacles-justice-and-remedy-sexual-assault-survivors.

[35] Human Rights Watch news release, “UN: WHO Condemns ‘Virginity Tests,’” December 1, 2014, https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/12/02/un-who-condemns-virginity-tests.

[36] Global Slavery Index, “2018 Country Data – Mauritania,” https://www.globalslaveryindex.org/2018/data/country-data/mauritania/ (accessed August 19, 2021).

[37] Human Rights Watch report, “”Ethnicity, Discrimination, and Other Red Lines: Repression of Human Rights Defenders in Mauritania,” February 12, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/02/12/ethnicity-discrimination-and-other-red-lines/repression-human-rights-defenders; Human Rights Watch news release, “Mauritania: Administrative Obstacles Keep Kids from School,” March 29, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/03/29/mauritania-administrative-obstacles-keep-kids-school

[38] OECD Factsheet, “Social Institutions and Gender Index – Mauritania,” 2019, https://www.genderindex.org/wp-content/uploads/files/datasheets/2019/MR.pdf.

[39] E Ann McDougall, “‘Life in Nouakchott is not true liberty, not at all’: living the legacies of slavery in Nouakchott, Mauritania,” Open Democracy, July 19, 2016, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/beyond-trafficking-and-slavery/life-in-nouakchott-is-not-true-liberty-not-at-all-living-legacies-of-s/; “Unshackled Yet Far From Free, Former Slaves Struggle in Mauritania,” VOA News, March 4, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/africa/unshackled-yet-far-free-former-slaves-struggle-mauritania; “The Unspeakable Truth About Slavery in Mauritania,” The Guardian, June 8, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/jun/08/the-unspeakable-truth-about-slavery-in-mauritania (accessed August 20, 2021).

[40] Human Rights Watch news release, “Mauritania: Administrative Obstacles Keep Kids from School,” March 29, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/03/29/mauritania-administrative-obstacles-keep-kids-school; “The Unspeakable Truth About Slavery in Mauritania,” The Guardian, June 8, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/jun/08/the-unspeakable-truth-about-slavery-in-mauritania (accessed August 20, 2021); “Mauritania, Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, “Alternative Report Submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee at the 107th Session during the Consideration of the 1st Period Report of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania,” February 2013, https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CCPR/Shared%20Documents/MRT/INT_CCPR_NGO_MRT_14506_E.pdf

[41] Human Rights Watch Submission to the Africa Regional Review on Implementation of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration,  July 6, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/07/06/human-rights-watch-submission-africa-regional-review-implementation-global-compact.

[42] Human Rights Watch news release, “Spain: Respect Rights of People Arriving by Sea to Canary Islands,” November 11, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/11/11/spain-respect-rights-people-arriving-sea-canary-islands.

[43] UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Protecting the rights of migrants in irregular situations,” https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Migration/GlobalCompactMigration/IrregularMigrants.pdf.

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