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We write in advance of the 84th session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women regarding Mauritania’s compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. This submission addresses article 10 of the Convention and includes information on teenage pregnancy and access to education. This is an updated submission following Human Rights Watch’s February 2021 submission to the committee during its 80th pre-session for its review of Mauritania.[1]


  1. Discrimination Against Women in Personal Status Laws (Articles 1, 2, 15, and 16)

Mauritania’s laws on divorce, responsibility for children after divorce, and inheritance discriminate against women and girls. Article 56 of the Personal Status Law (PSL) states that a husband constitutes the head of household while a wife’s role is to assist him in managing the family.[2]  A divorced woman may see her children ordered to live with their father solely on the grounds that she chooses to remarry.[3] To date, Mauritania has not lifted some CEDAW reservations related to eliminating discrimination in family benefits and requiring equality in marriage and family matters.[4]

Though the legal age of marriage is 18, article 6 of the Personal Status Law allows guardians to contract some girls into marriage if their guardian deems the marriage in their “best interest.”[5] Moreover, though article 9 requires a woman’s consent in marriage, “the silence of a minor is [considered] her consent.”[6] The General Code of Children’s Protection provides sentences from five to 10 years of prison and a fine for a guardian who marries a child “in the exclusive interest of the guardian,” without defining what that phrase means.[7] According to UNICEF, between 2012 and 2018, 18% of girls were married by age 15, and 37% were married by age 18.[8]

We encourage the Committee to call on Mauritania to take the following steps:

  • Withdraw its reservations to CEDAW, which may be incompatible with the convention’s object and purpose.
  • Amend the Personal Status Law, in particular articles 6, 9, and 56, to be consistent with Mauritania’s obligations under CEDAW to ensure women have the same rights as men in relation to marriage, divorce, decisions relating to children and marital property.
  1. Violence Against Women and Girls (Articles 1, 2, 3, 12, and 16)

Inadequate Protection from Gender-Based Violence

Human Rights Watch has found that the lack of strong laws on gender-based violence and of institutions to provide assistance to victims, along with social pressures and stigma, dissuade Mauritanian women and girls from seeking help and remedies when they are abused.[9] The criminalization of consensual adult sexual relations outside marriage (called zina) further deters girls and women from reporting assaults because they can find themselves charged if the judiciary views the act in question as consensual, Human Rights Watch found.[10] This offence is a violation of multiple rights of women and girls, including rights to autonomy, privacy, liberty and security and non-discrimination.

A draft law on gender-based violence, supported by the Ministry of Justice, has been twice rejected by parliament and remains pending at time of writing. 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 by maintaining criminal charges for consensual sexual relations outside marriage and restrictions on abortion.[11] Moreover, rape and sexual assault are defined too narrowly, and the Penal Code maintains references to forms of punishments degrading treatment, such as death by stoning or flogging.

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. Mauritania’s 2017 law on reproductive health declared that the right to reproductive health is a “universal fundamental right, guaranteed to all, at any stage of life.”[12] However, the law bans abortion, punishing those who provide and receive the procedure, except where the pregnancy poses a “threat to the mother’s life.”[13] The law prohibits abortion even in cases of sexual violence.

In May 2019, Human Rights Watch interviewed “Rouhiya,” (name changed for her security) a young woman who was repeatedly sexually abused by her father and was pregnant in 2018 at age 17 as a result of rape by him.[14] The lack of shelters in Nouakchott and lack of government support left Rouhiya 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 2018, 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.[15] 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 representatives of Médicos del Mundo in Mauritania, 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.[16]

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.[17]

Female Genital Mutilation and “Virginity Testing”

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is practiced despite the fact that the country’s General Code on Children’s Protection, adopted in 2017, unconditionally criminalizes it.[18] 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.[19] Women and girls from rural communities and those who haven’t completed secondary schooling are more likely to have experienced FGM than those from urban areas and those who have completed their education.[20]

Over the last few 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. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Family and its partners prompted doctors to adopt a national declaration condemning the adverse effects of FGM, and Islamic scholars issued a “fatwa” (a religious edict that provides a non-binding legal interpretation of Sharia) declaring that the practice lacked a religious basis.[21] The UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) has worked extensively in the country as well, including by organizing parliamentary hearings and meetings with religious leaders and medical professionals.[22]

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.[23] Freedom House in 2020 reported the law against FGM is “rarely enforced.”[24] 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.[25]

“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.[26] 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.[27]

We encourage the Committee to pose questions and make recommendations as follows:

  • 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 steps are being taken to repeal or amend laws that facilitate violence against women, including those related to zina (sexual intercourse outside of marriage)?
  • What steps will the government take to ban virginity tests in forensic exams in cases of rape, and appropriately penalize doctors who perform them, and ensure that forensic examinations are conducted in accordance with the World Health Organization’s guidance?
  • 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?
  • Review and adopt the draft law on gender-based violence, after amending its provisions to comply with Mauritania’s international human rights obligations, ensuring it adequately takes all feasible measures to prevent and deter gender-based violence, protect survivors, and prosecute perpetrators including:
    • Providing for mandatory, periodic, and institutionalized training and awareness-raising programs on gender-based violence and adequate institutional responses for law enforcement officials, judges, and health professionals.
    • Ensuring all survivors have access to support services, including effective free legal aid, medical treatment including competent psychological support, and economic assistance.
    • Providing funding for the implementation of measures within the law, particularly for the creation of shelters providing short-, medium-, and long-term accommodation options to sexual violence survivors, awareness-raising campaigns, new means of forensic testing including DNA evidence, and specialized police, prosecutorial units, and court sections to investigate and hear cases of sexual violence.
    • Repealing provisions in the Penal Code criminalizing consensual sexual relations (article 307), other “moral crimes” (article 306), and abortion (article 293 of the Penal Code and article 22 of the 2017 law on reproductive health).
    • Criminalizing all forms of sexual assault (both perpetrated and attempted) and gender-based violence, and provide clear definitions of notions such as sexual assault, attempted rape, rape (including marital rape and penetration with an object) in line with international standards.
  • End all prosecutions of women and girls, in particular girl and women survivors of sexual assault, for sexual relations outside marriage and release anyone held under such charges.
  • Adopt forensic guidelines on documenting and treating sexual violence in line with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines, including the standard form on such documentation, prohibiting the use of “virginity tests,” and emphasizing doctors and other health workers’ obligation to provide medical assistance and forensic testing if sought by the survivor, without requiring the survivor to obtain a police referral.
  • Prioritize the recruitment of female doctors and healthcare professionals to increase access of sexual violence survivors to female practitioners.
  1. Slavery (Article 11)

Mauritania abolished slavery in 1981 and criminalized it in 2007. However, 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; the OECD reports women and girls from these communities are vulnerable to sexual violence and rape.[28]

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, 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?


  1. Attacks on Women Human Rights Defenders, Freedom of Expression and Association (Articles 3 and 7)

Human Rights Watch has documented a wide pattern of repression against anti-slavery activists.[29] Activists are arrested, detained for long periods of time, and in some cases tortured, and their gatherings strictly monitored or otherwise banned. Mauritania’s law on association, though modified in 2021, allows for excessive government control over people’s right to form or operate within associations.[30] Antislavery organizations, including the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, have been denied the ability to register.

We encourage the Committee to pose the following questions:

  • How will the government ensure that its legal framework is not used to curb freedom of expression (most notably using the law on associations)?
  • What steps is the government taking to ensure that women and girls, including activists and journalists, can enjoy their rights to freedom of expression and of association without fear of reprisal?
  1. Equitable Access to Education including Teenage Pregnancy (Article 10)

Mauritania’s national civil registration process, which began in 2011, is preventing some children from attending public school and taking mandatory national examinations.[31] To complete the registration process, citizens and non-citizen residents are required to produce a range of official paperwork, but many people lack the necessary documents and have found the process of obtaining them arduous. Families told Human Rights Watch that some schools have rejected pupils who lack civil registration, even though school attendance is compulsory from ages 6 to 14.

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.

Some children without the required documentation have been 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.

All the families interviewed by Human Rights Watch who lacked the required documentation are of modest means and belong either to Mauritania’s Haratine (Hassaniya-speaking former slaves or descendants of slaves) or Afro-Mauritanian populations. Some Mauritanian groups contend the civil registration process discriminates against these groups.

School completion rates at the primary and lower secondary levels evince inequities between boys and girls.[32] According to UNICEF, between 2012 and 2018, only 56 percent of girls completed primary school, compared to 64 percent of boys.[33] Within the same timeframe, only 34 percent of girls completed lower secondary school, compared to 42 percent of boys.[34] At the upper secondary level, boys and girls completed school at similar rates.[35]

The transition from primary to lower secondary school has been reported by rights groups as particularly challenging for girls in rural areas.[36] If families can only afford to send some children to school further away, there is a higher chance that boys will be prioritized over girls for safety or cultural reasons.[37]

In Mauritania from 2004 to 2020, the United Nations Population Fund reported the adolescent birth rate as 84 per 1,000 adolescent girls and women aged 15-19,[38] lower than the subregional rate in West and Central Africa but double the average global rate of 40. During this period, the adolescent birth rate in Mauritania steadily decreased: In 2004, the adolescent birth rate was 91 per 1,000 girls, and in 2020, the rate was 67 per 1,000 girls.[39]

In many countries in Africa, Covid-19 pandemic-related school closures have reportedly resulted in increased teenage pregnancies.[40]

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy sexual and reproductive health NGO, in Mauritania, 74 percent of girls and women aged 15 to 19 who want to avoid a pregnancy have an unmet need for contraception.[41] Of all pregnancies that occurred in Mauritania in 2015-2019, 36 percent were unintended, higher than the Western African subregional average.[42] Of all unintended pregnancies, 25 percent of those women or girls were able to secure an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute..[43] As noted above, Mauritania’s 2017 law on reproductive health bans abortion, except where the pregnancy poses a threat to the mother’s life. Some methods women use to obtain abortions include pills that are imported into the country, clandestine abortions in unsafe medical conditions, or traditional methods, such as with herbs.[44]

Mauritania’s criminalization of sex outside of marriage (known as “zina” see above) also leads to violations of the right to education. Pregnant girls and adolescent mothers, who are often perceived to bring dishonor to their communities, are exposed to public ridicule, isolation, and criminal punishments if unmarried, and are expected to drop out of school. Although the text of the law is limited to adults, Human Rights Watch research has found that prosecutors have charged adolescent girls under article 307, including when they are pregnant.[45]

A Mauritanian lawyer who represents women and girls supported by the Mauritanian Association for the Health of the Mother and the Child, told Human Rights Watch: “For rape cases where the complainant is a minor, when the girl becomes pregnant, she’s convicted for zina because according to the judge’s reasoning, if a girl becomes pregnant, her body is mature—she can conceive a child and is thus, legally speaking, an adult.”[46] In one case, “Rouhiya,” (mentioned above) said that in July 2016, when she was 15-years old, she fled her sexually abusive father and sought refuge at the house of a 23-year-old man who had promised to marry her. Soon after, she said, the man locked her up, drugged her, and gang-raped her with three other men. Rouhiya remained captive for two weeks until the police found her and returned her to the home from which she had tried to escape. After she went to the police to file a complaint about the men, Rouhiya disclosed that she knew one of the perpetrators. Police arrested her and prosecuted her for having engaged in sexual relations outside marriage.[47]

Article 35 of the Child Protection Law upholds the education rights of girls and imposes criminal sanctions on parents, guardians, and school officials who refuse to allow a girl under the age of 18 to continue her education because of pregnancy.[48] However, in practice, the criminalization of sexual relations outside of marriage presents a significant barrier in accessing education during pregnancy or after birth.

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

  • What measures are in place to protect the right to education of girls who are pregnant, married or are adolescent mothers?
  • Are there any budgetary allocations to ensure or promote pregnant girls’ and young mothers’ access to education, and if so, what is the budget?
  • What steps is the government taking, including budgetary measures, to ensure pregnant girls and adolescent mothers at risk of dropping out are socially and financially supported to stay in school?
  • What steps is the government taking to tackle barriers that impede the retention of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers in school, including school fees, indirect costs, and stigma and discrimination?
  • What special accommodations are provided for young mothers at school, such as time for breastfeeding, flexibility when babies are ill, or flexibility in class schedules?
  • What programs are in place to ensure access to nurseries or early childhood centers close to schools attended by parents of young children?
  • What measures are being taken to provide effective access to safe, legal abortion for women and girls in Mauritania?
  • How many girls and women have been prosecuted for zina? How many have been convicted?

Human Rights Watch recommends that the Committee call on the government of Mauritania to:

  • Address social, financial, and systemic barriers that inhibit adolescent mothers from continuing their education.
  • Adopt a continuation policy that allows students who are pregnant, mothers, and/or married to continue their education while pregnant and after giving birth, and ensure schools are free from stigma and discrimination.
  • Ensure that adolescents have confidential access to modern forms of contraceptives and information on sexual and reproductive health rights, including through comprehensive sexuality education.
  • Ensure that all women and girls can obtain effective access to safe and legal abortion services.

[1] “Human Rights Watch Submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on Mauritania,” Human Rights Watch statement, February 12, 2021,

[2] Law no. 052-2001 on the Personal Status Code, (accessed July 28, 2022), art. 56.

[3] Art. 129 and 130 of the Personal Status Code

[4] CEDAW, Status at January 29, 2021, Mauritania, (accessed January 29, 2021).

[5] Art. 6 of the Personal Status Code

[6] Art. 9 of the Personal Status Code

[7] General Code of Children’s Protection, art. 17

[8] UNICEF, “State of the World’s Children -  2019,” Table 10, page 229,

[9] Human Rights Watch Report, “They Told Me to Keep Quiet: Obstacles to Justice and Remedy for Sexual Assault Survivors in Mauritania,” September 5, 2018,

[10] Article 307 of Mauritania’s Penal Code. Government of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, “Ordonnance 83-162 du 09 juillet 1983 portant institution d’un Code Pénal” (“Ordinance 83-162 of July 9, 1983, establishing a Penal Code”), See more in Human Rights Watch Report, “They Told Me to Keep Quiet: Obstacles to Justice and Remedy for Sexual Assault Survivors in Mauritania,” September 5, 2018,

[11] “Mauritania: President Should Lead on Reform Process,” Human Rights Watch news release, August 1, 2020,

[12] Law on Reproductive Health, art. 7.

[13] Ibid., art. 22. For criminal sanctions, see Penal Code, art. 293.

[14] “Letter to President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani Re: Women’s Rights and Gender-Based Violence,” Human Rights Watch, October 15, 2019,

[15] Human Rights Watch Report, “They Told Me to Keep Quiet: Obstacles to Justice and Remedy for Sexual Assault Survivors in Mauritania,” September 5, 2018,

[16] Human Rights Watch interview with Amparo Fernández del Río and Dr. Amadou Kane, Nouakchott, February 5, 2018.

[17] Human Rights Watch Report, “They Told Me to Keep Quiet: Obstacles to Justice and Remedy for Sexual Assault Survivors in Mauritania,” September 5, 2018,

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

[19] Cetorelli et. al, “Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Mali and Mauritania: Understanding Trends and Evaluating Policies,” March 2020, available

[20] Ibid.

[21] National Human Rights Commission, Annual Report 2016, p. 34. See also NHRC, Report on Women’s Rights 2017, p. 21.

[22] UNFPA-UNICEF Report, “Joint Programme on Female Genital Cutting: Accelerating Change, 2008-2012,” September 2013,

[23] 28 Too Many and Thomas Reuters Foundation Report, “Mauritania: The Law and FGM,” September 2018,

[24] Freedom House Report, “Mauritania – Freedom in the World 2020,” (accessed February 8, 2021)

[25] UNICEF Factsheet, “The UNICEF Approach to the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation,” October 2020,

[26] Human Rights Watch Report, “They Told Me to Keep Quiet: Obstacles to Justice and Remedy for Sexual Assault Survivors in Mauritania,” September 5, 2018,

[27] Ibid.

[28] US State Department, “2020 Trafficking in Persons Report: Mauritania,” (accessed February 9, 2021); Human Rights Watch World Report,  “Mauritania: Events of 2020,” January 2021, ; OECD Factsheet, “Social Institutions and Gender Index – Mauritania,” 2019,

[29] Human Rights Watch Report, “Ethnicity, Discrimination, and Other Red Lines: Repression of Human Rights Defenders in Mauritania,” February 12, 2018,

[30] “Mauritania: Revise Draft Associations Law,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 23, 2020,

[31] “Mauritania: Administrative Obstacles Keep Kids from School,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 29, 2018,

[32] UNICEF, “State of the World’s Children -  2019,” Table 10, page 229,

[33] Ibid

[34] Ibid

[35] Ibid. The male completion rate was 14 percent, and 15 percent for females.

[36] “Mauritania: Distance Shouldn’t Stand between Girls and Their Education” Global Partnership for Education, October 2020, (accessed January 29, 2021).

[37] Ibid.

[38] United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), “Seeing the Unseen: The case for action in the neglected crisis of unintended pregnancy,” 2022, (accessed December 16, 2022).

[39] World Bank, “Adolescent fertility rate (births per 1,000 women ages 15-19) – Mauritania,” (accessed December 16, 2022).

[40] “Africa: COVID lockdowns blamed for increase in teenage pregnancies,” DW, September 13, 2021, (accessed September 23, 2022); “How COVID-19 has increased fertility, adolescent pregnancy and maternal deaths in East and Southern African countries,” UNFPA news release, July 11, 2021, (accessed September 23, 2022); “L’Afrique face au Covid-19: les pics de grossesses précoces mettent en peril l’avenir des jeunes filles,” Le Monde Afrique, February 1, 2022, (accessed September 29, 2022).

[41] Guttmacher Institute, “Country Profile: Mauritania: Unmet needs for services,” (accessed December 16, 2022).

[42] Guttmacher Institute, “Country Profile: Mauritania: Unintended pregnancy and abortion,” (accessed December 16, 2022).

[43] Ibid.

[44] Safe2Choose, “Abortion in Mauritania,” (accessed January 6, 2023); European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, “Mauritania,” (accessed January 6, 2022); Law No 25 of 2017, art. 21,

[45] Human Rights Watch, “They Told Me to Keep Quiet”: Obstacles to Justice and Remedy for Sexual Assault Survivors in Mauritania (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2018),; “Human Rights Watch, “‘A Brighter Future: Empowering Pregnant Girls and Adolescent Mothers to Stay in School’: Education Access across the African Union: A Human Rights Watch Index,” August 29, 2022,

[46] Human Rights Watch interview with lawyer for the Mauritanian Association for the Health of the Mother and the Child, Nouakchott, January 24, 2018.

[47] Human Rights Watch, “They Told Me to Keep Quiet”: Obstacles to Justice and Remedy for Sexual Assault Survivors in Mauritania (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2018),, pp. 21-22.

[48] Government of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, “Ordonnance n°2005-015 portant protection pénale de l’enfant” (“Ordinance No. 2005-015 on the criminal protection of children”),

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