Nouakchott — Mauritania formally adopted the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 2001, but in the eight years since, it has had limited effect on the status of women.
Human rights lawyer Oumoulkhairy Kane spoke to IPS by phone from Nouakchott about conservative resistance, politicians fearful of crossing powerful clerics, and the work that lies ahead in achieving women's empowerment and gender equality in Mauritania.
IPS:It is 30 years now since CEDAW came into being. What is the situation of Mauritanian women in light of the Convention?
OUMOULKHAIRY KANE: Well. The truth is that Mauritanian women - like women in many if not all African countries - continue to face a lot of challenges. There are a lot of barriers and obstacles that impede the progress of women. These barriers include cultural, religious and social norms that are used to abuse women.
IPS: What are examples of these barriers?
OK: Mauritania is a highly conservative society where Islam is used as a determinant factor in everything we do as a people. Now it just happens that Islam is misinterpreted and misapplied when it comes to dealing with women and women's issues.
Women are battered and abused at home and whenever they complained often they are blamed for adopting lifestyles that are foreign to Mauritania.
Despite Mauritania being a signatory to the CEDAW convention, our constitution still maintains that the state and society are the protectors of the family. This explains the predicament of some of us involved in the fight against discrimination of women, because most of the time when it comes to deciding women's issues, the state leans towards conservative thinking. This is because male politicians often don't want to anger the conservative Muslim clerics who still command loyal following among ordinary people.
Culturally, girls in some parts of Mauritania are forced to marry at an extremely early age when they should be going to school. Often these girls are force-fed to prepare them for marriage. This is in effect a form of modern slavery as most parents fatten their child with the hope that a rich man will marry her.
However the children who go through this practice endure a lot of suffering, and physical abuse like beating, mutilating their feet and hands. The abuses can be so cruel that some children faint. Despite these and other real health problems associated with force-feeding, successive governments have been dragging their feet in enforcing the law banning the practice because politicians don't want to anger their constituents.
IPS: In the light of what you've said, do ordinary people - especially women in Mauritania - even know about the existence of CEDAW?
OK: I will be honest with you: very few women know about CEDAW.
One of the principal reasons for this is that everybody, including women themselves, treat campaigns against discrimination of women as something foreign to Mauritanian culture and way of life. Thus despite serious efforts by women's rights groups to raise popular awareness about this important convention, very little has been achieved in terms of making people aware of the important elements in the convention.
Interestingly most Mauritanians don't watch the national TV channel, or listen to the national radio. Instead everybody is listening to international radio or watching TV that broadcasts in Arabic like Al-Jazeera, BBC and others.
Some rights groups have started using other means to inform people about women's rights issue, organising community meetings at village centres as well as going from door to door. The problem with this last option is that sometimes when you visit some communities, men don't allow their wives to attend because they accused the campaigners of corrupting the minds of the village women.
IPS: So what do you think needs to be done to reverse the unfortunate trend with regards to the status of women?
OK: I have to admit that Mauritania is very good at signing conventions. I think the country has ratified almost all the conventions that aim to eliminate discrimination against women.
What is however lacking is the will to enforce what is contained in these international instruments.
On most occasions governments are eager to implement those issues in the CEDAW convention that pose few problems or controversy to their political existence. It is time now for government to act sincerely to ensure that the (whole of the) CEDAW convention is enforced regardless.
There is also the need for serious sensitisation of the population on the various instruments regarding women's rights issues. The government should therefore facilitate access for NGOs to the national media to help in this drive.
The government should also introduce programmes in schools to fight against discrimination and all forms of violence against women and setup an inter-governmental body that will monitor how international conventions on women are enforced.
The government should also protect and support women and girls who have fled domestic violence in their homes by putting them under the guardianship of an institution or official authority.
Finally, and I think most importantly, the government should not be consulting with clerics alone when it comes to matters dealing with women's issues... because most of the time these clerics give a conservative interpretation of issues that is not necessarily correct.