79th pre-sessional working group

February 2018

This submission relates to Articles 7, 8, 13, 24, 28, 32, 34, and 38 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and focuses on three themes: how a family’s inability to complete the process of civil registration affects children’s access to primary and secondary education; child marriage; and the protection of students, teachers, and schools during armed conflict. It proposes issues and questions that Committee members may wish to raise with the government. The submission is mainly based on research conducted by Human Rights Watch in the capital, Nouakchott, in October 2017. We interviewed 15 families, including children from underprivileged neighborhoods of Nouakchott, spoke with six human rights groups working on civil registration issues, and met with the Minister of Interior, the President of the National Human Rights Commission, and the director of a civil registration center.

Civil registration and access to education (Articles 7, 8, 28, 32)


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] According to media reports, such grievances have recently sparked grassroots mobilization of secondary school students whose organizing efforts were reportedly met with repression.[3]

Primary school education (“école fondamentale”) became mandatory in 2001 for all children aged 6 to 14 years old[4] and is free for children enrolled in public schools.

In May 2011, the government launched a national biometric civil registration (“enrôlement à l’état civil”) campaign.[5] Since then, civil registration is mandatory for all Mauritanian nationals and residents.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

The Minister of Interior asserted during our meeting in October 2017 that the administration provides workarounds when families cannot meet certain formalities and assured us that no student had ever been prevented from taking a national examination for mere lack of civil registration. For example, he stated that a mother could obtain a civil registration for a child born out of wedlock by declaring the child’s birth before a local court; or that civil registration centers could issue temporary certificates as a substitute proof of identity for students without civil registration willing to take any national examination. Such assurances contrasted with the testimonies of the families we interviewed, who professed bewilderment at the various steps of the civil registration process and were either unaware or denied alternative options described as commonly available by the Minister of Interior. As a result, their children were paying the price. 

In June 2017, Mauritania’s Minister of Social Affairs, Childhood and Family estimated that 44 percent of births are not registered, in which case parents must complete a process of registering the birth before seeking a biometric civil registration and associated national identity documents that they need to proceed through the education system.[9]

Civil registration

The fifteen families we interviewed 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.”[10] 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.”[11]

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.

Nonetheless, we believe that because of the obstacles many Mauritanian nationals and residents face in navigating the civil registration process, this requirement is likely to prevent many eligible people from enrolling in public schools and taking filtering national examinations. This problem seems to impact economically marginalized groups acutely.

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 associated with obtaining the various documents required by the procedure.

Barriers to enrollment in public schools

Mamadou Ahmed Sokho, a 38 year-old-father of four who lives in the outskirts of Nouakchott told Human Rights Watch, “None of my children [three of whom are school-aged] go to school. Every year, I try to enroll them in public school, but the school asks for their papers. Since 2005, I’ve unsuccessfully tried to enroll them in public school every year. I’ve enrolled them in private Qur’anic schools instead.” Sokho’s efforts to obtain civil registration for his children have failed because he has not been able to renew his own status and identity documents. Sokho participated in Mauritania’s 1998 national census from Ivory Coast, where he resided then. The problem with his registration stems from a discrepancy between the information collected by consulate officers in 1998 and his current civil registration application, he said.

Echoing Sokho, many of the fifteen 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 despite numerous attempts to obtain them. 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 of the parents we spoke with were able to make ad hoc arrangements with a teacher or school director for some of their children to attend classes in public schools. However, only two of the interviewees [recounting their primary school experience] were able to take the “concours” (national examination at the end of primary school), and none of the children interviewed who were old enough to sit for secondary school national examinations (“brevêt” or “baccalauréat”) were allowed to take such examinations.

National Examinations

Twenty-year old Babacar Sarr dropped out of school at the end of the first cycle of secondary school (“collège”) because he could not take the national examination (“brevet”) required to enroll in high school (“lycée”). No papers, no exams they told me,” said Sarr.

For all the 15 families we interviewed whose children lacked civil registration, national examinations were a barrier to academic progress. 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”). These 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. In 2015, the National Office of Statistics estimated that approximately 37,6 percent of children aged 5 to 17 were employed in some fashion in Mauritania.[12]

Human Rights Watch recommends the Committee 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?
  • What steps, if any, is the government taking to ensure that students enrolled in primary and secondary schools but who lack civil registration can take national examinations?

Human Rights Watch asks the Committee to call upon the government of Mauritania to:

  • Prioritize steps to ensure that all children residing in Mauritania have access to free public primary and secondary education, regardless of their civil registration status.
  • Clarify civil registration procedures by effectively defining and communicating the list of required documentation.
  • Increase outreach to help families complete the civil registration process and ensure that no family is unable to complete it for want of the money or other resources required to do so. Guide and provide tailored administrative assistance with civil registration procedures to students in sufficient time to ensure that they can complete any administrative procedures required to undergo primary or secondary school national examinations (“concours, brevêt, baccalauréat”).

Child marriage (Articles 13, 24, 34)

In 2015, Mauritania’s National Office of Statistics estimated that 15.6 percent of women aged 15 through 49 were married before the age of 15 (and 0.8 percent of men of the same age range) and 35.2 percent of women aged 20 through 49 were married before the age of 18 (and 3.9 percent of men of the same age range).[13]

Mauritania’s Personal Status Code sets the minimum age for marriage at 18.[14] However, it also provides that a woman who has reached “age of majority” cannot be married without her consent and the approval of her male guardian (“weli”). There is a lack of clarity in the code as to whether the “age of majority” means women who reach the age of 18 or, refers, as under traditional Islamic jurisprudence, to the age of puberty.  The code provides that in the event of any difficulty interpreting its text, the principles of the Maliki school of jurisprudence should serve as the guide.[15] The same article also provides that “the silence of a young girl implies consent.”[16]

If the male guardian’s refusal to marry a woman or a young girl is “not substantiated,” a judge can order the guardian to marry her off, and if he still refuses the judge can conduct the marriage without the guardian’s approval.[17]

Far from prohibiting child marriage, Mauritania’s ambiguous domestic laws allow the practice to persist today.[18]

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

  • What steps is Mauritania taking to eliminate the practice of child marriage?
  • Is Mauritania considering removing language of its domestic law that allows for girls under 18 to be married?

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

  • Amend provisions 6, 7, 9, and 13 of the Personal Status Code to set the legal capacity to marry at 18 years old, and to remove language that silence can imply consent.
  • Adopt a national plan to combat child marriage including enacting legislative measures and policies prohibiting child marriage and implementing campaigns at national and local level to raise awareness about the mental and physical health risks of child marriage. Ensure the plan includes input from women’s and children’s rights groups, health professionals, and other service providers; coordinate efforts among all relevant ministries; and ensure sufficient resources to implement the plan.

The protection of education during armed conflict (Articles 28, 38)

As of August 2017, Mauritania was contributing 745 troops and 15 staff officers to United Nations peacekeeping operations around the world. These troops are required to comply with the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations’ United Nations Infantry Battalion Manual (2012), which includes the provision that “schools shall not be used by the military in their operations.”[19]  Mauritania’s peacekeeping troops are deployed in the Central African Republic and Mali—two countries where the military use of schools has been documented by other forces. The Central African Republic has endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, and the UN peacekeeping forces there, MINUSCA, have begun to clear schools occupied by militias. 

Moreover, the new 2017 Child Protection Policy of the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support, and Department of Political Affairs notes:


United Nations peace operations should refrain from all actions that impede children's access to education, including the use of school premises. This applies particularly to uniformed personnel. Furthermore, recognizing the adverse impact of the use of schools for military purposes, in particular its effects on the safety of children and education personnel, the civilian nature of schools, and the right to education, United Nations peace operations personnel shall at no time and for no amount of time use schools for military purposes.[20]


In June 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 2225 (2015) on children and armed conflict, which:


Expresses deep concern that the military use of schools in contravention of applicable international law may render schools legitimate targets of attack, thus endangering the safety of children and in this regard encourages Member States to take concrete measures to deter such use of schools by armed forces and armed groups.[21]


Human Rights Watch believes that an example of such a concrete measure to deter the military use of schools would be for Mauritania to endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration.[22] The Safe Schools Declaration is a political commitment to better protect students, educational staff, schools, and universities during armed conflict. It was drafted through a consultative process led by Norway and Argentina in 2015. The Declaration includes a commitment to use the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict.[23]

As of December 2017, 71 countries—representing more than one-third of all UN member states—have already endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, including 19 of Mauritania’s fellow African Union member states. The Peace and Security Council of the AU has recognized the importance of the Safe Schools Declaration and the Guidelines in protecting education during armed conflict and encouraged states to support them on three occasions, including urging “Member States to endorse and implement” the Declaration in June 2017.[24]

The African Union Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025 also mentions the importance of protecting schools and universities from attack and preserving them from military use in order to ensure the continuation of education during war and in post conflict situations.[25]

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

  • What steps has Mauritania taken in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2143 (2014) and 2225 (2015) to deter the use of schools for military purposes?
  • Are protections for schools from military use included in any policies, rules, or pre-deployment trainings for Mauritania’s armed forces?

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

  • Endorse and implement the Safe Schools Declaration, including by bringing the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict into domestic military policy and operational frameworks, as per the commitment made in 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, http://www.education.gov.mr/spip.php?article625 (accessed November 28, 2017), pp. 9, 69.

[3] See, for example, Amadou Sy, “Grève du lycée de Sélibaby : Détention, négociations, promesses,” Le Reflet, November 16, 2017, http://www.lereflet.net/la-greve-lycee-de-selibaby-continue/ (accessed November 20, 2017).

[4] 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”).

[5] 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”).

[6] Ibid.

[7] 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].

[8]  Baba Ahmed, p. 43 onward.

[9] 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, http://fr.ami.mr/Depeche-41131.html (accessed November 20, 2017).

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

[11] Ibid.

[12] National Office of Statistics, Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, 2015, Key results, Nouakchott, Mauritania, (“Office National de la Statistique, Enquête par Grappes à Indicateurs Multiples, 2015, Résultats clés, Nouakchott, Mauritanie”), September 2016, https://mics-surveys-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/MICS5/West%20and%20Central%20Africa/Mauritania/2015/Key%20findings/Mauritania%202015%20MICS%20KFR_French.PDF (accessed December 21, 2017).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Personal Status Code, Law. 2001-052 of 19 July 2001, art. 6.

[15] Ibid., art. 311.

[16] Ibid., art. 9.

[17] Ibid., art. 13.

[18] United Nations Children’s Fund, “Achieving a future without child marriage, Focus on West and Central Africa,” October 23, 2017, https://data.unicef.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Child-Marriage-WEB.pdf.

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

[20] United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Department of Field Support and Department of Political Affairs, “Child Protection in UN Peace Operations (Policy),” June 2017.

[21] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 2225 (2015), S/RES/2225 (2015), http://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/s_res_2225.pdf (accessed October 9, 2017), para 7.

[22] Safe Schools Declaration, May 28, 2015, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/departementene/ud/vedlegg/utvikling/safe_schools_declaration.pdf (accessed October 19, 2016).

[23] Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, 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 (accessed October 19, 2016).

[24] African Union Peace and Security Council, 597th Meeting, “Press Statement,” May 10, 2016, http://www.peaceau.org/uploads/psc-597-press-statement-children-armed-conflicts.pdf (accessed on July 15, 2016); 615th meeting, “Press statement,” August 9, 2016, http://www.peaceau.org/uploads/auc.psc.pr-615th-open-session-9august2016-1-.pdf (accessed October 9, 2017); African Union Peace and Security Council, 692nd meeting, “Press statement,” June 13, 2017, http://www.peaceau.org/uploads/psc.692.press-statement.ending.child.marriage.13.06.2017.pdf (accessed November 3, 2017).

[25] African Union, Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-2025, January 2016, p. 14.