NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania – Behind a bright turquoise gate, the El Wafa Center opens into a sandy courtyard. A group of women sit in the shade of an aluminum awning, escaping the blazing midday sun, while children play in the sand.
Zeinebou Mint Taleb Moussa moves around the grounds, as the women and young children run up to shake her hand. This community center is her creation, and everyone is eager to say hello.
Launched in 2001 out of a small room serving as a makeshift office, El Wafa is now located in a large building in an impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of Nouakchott, the capital of this little-known desert country on the coast of western Africa.
And it’s where Moussa has been waging a fight to end sexual violence against women and girls in Mauritania for more than a decade.
“The problem we’ve raised is a problem that is taboo in every country,” she says.
“Especially in our country, which is a traditional Muslim country. That means this problem of sexual violence is not at all easy, on the social, political or judicial levels.”
Women Dare to Speak Out
In the main office, a young staff member pulls up a detailed, color-coded spreadsheet on a computer screen. It’s a list of victims of sexual violence, including names, dates of birth, phone numbers, preferred languages, relationships to their attacker and the status of any judicial proceedings. Red designates sodomy. Purple refers to rape resulting in pregnancy. The youngest survivor of abuse is a toddler, and though the majority are women and girls, boys are also on the list.
El Wafa center handled 134 cases of sexual violence in 2016, according to these records. By the end of July 2017, El Wafa had registered 90 cases for the year.
When victims first arrive at the center, they have a medical checkup and receive information about HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, Banel Negri, one of the El Wafa social workers, explains. They also speak to a psychologist or a social worker.
The center provides transport for the women to travel to and from the center every day as they receive counseling, and offers reading and writing classes – many of the women and girls have previously had no access to education.
If the survivors decide to press charges, the center will also provide support and guidance.
Negri says families need help handling the impact of this type of violence, as well. But it is often difficult to arrange meetings; many don’t want social workers to come to their homes at all, unwilling to draw attention from neighbors.
The center also operates a 24-hour hotline for victims of violence. “The average is six [calls] per day. For us, that’s a lot – it’s enormous,” says Amadou Aly Sy, an operator who has been answering the hotline for two years. He says callers bring up topics such as abuse, exploitation, discrimination, personal relationships, family problems and HIV/AIDS.
Mauritanian women are increasingly coming forward when sexual violence occurs, Negri said.
“Now women are daring to speak. Confidence [is built] once the victim sees you and tells you her story. She is relieved. Every time she sees you, she’s relieved.”
Challenging the Legal System
When Moussa founded El Wafa more 15 years ago, sexual violence in Mauritania was almost never talked about.
Moussa says women would rarely come forward to say they had been assaulted, let alone make a criminal complaint against their abusers. “A girl’s virginity holds sociocultural value, and losing it dishonors the entire family,” she says.
Those early years weren’t easy. But after an intensive public awareness campaign a decade ago, led by El Wafa and the other organization Moussa heads, the Mauritanian Association for Maternal and Child Health, Mauritanian society at least reached the point where public discussions about sexual violence were possible. Moving from discussion to prevention, however, is proving a long and difficult process.
In 2008, Mauritania set up a national committee to combat gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation – a practice the state has criminalized. But the government has conceded that talking about gender-based violence remains largely taboo in the country, rarely denounced and little studied.
Mauritania does not collect data on the breadth of sexual violence against women, and assistance to survivors falls primarily to nongovernmental organizations, a 2014 U.N. report found.
The Association of Female Heads of Families reported 487 rapes between January and October 1, 2013, according to a U.S. human rights report. The same organization reported providing legal assistance to 2,709 survivors of domestic violence between January 1 and November 1, 2013.
The legal system also makes getting justice for rape and other types of sexual assault difficult, Moussa says.
Officially an Islamic republic, but with a history of French colonial rule, Mauritania’s legal system is a mixture of French structures and Sharia, or Islamic law. The country’s penal code has included acts that are considered crimes under Sharia – like heresy, apostasy, atheism and adultery – since the 1980s, when Mauritania amended its laws to better reflect religious strictures, says lawyer Zelezeck Nguimatsa Serge. But “the civil law foundation upon which the legal system” was developed remains intact, he says.
Rape is a criminal offense in Mauritania, but Moussa says the current law “doesn’t define rape” clearly. Often, she says, the concept of “zina” is applied in cases of rape in Mauritania. Under Sharia law, zina refers to unlawful sexual relations, whether adultery or between unmarried parties, putting the blame on the victims as much as the perpetrator.
About 60 percent of women who bring forward accusations of rape are accused of zina and risk imprisonment, according to a 2013 report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, based in London. In 2009, seven Mauritanian women who said they had been raped were jailed for zina, according to the Mauritanian Association for Maternal and Child Health.
In its July 2014 report on Mauritania, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women raised concerns about “the lack of effective judicial remedies for women who are victims of various forms of violence.”
‘Never Take a Step Back’
Moussa says major changes need to come at the legislative level, and in the minds of all Mauritanian citizens, if women are to be truly protected from violence.
She also says a deep divide exists between the services offered in Nouakchott, the capital, and the rest of the country, which is largely rural and remote. She wants to one day decentralize the El Wafa Center’s work, but for that, Moussa says, it needs more financial support.
The Mauritanian Association for Maternal and Child Health, which runs El Wafa, currently receives funding from United Nations agencies, such UNICEF and U.N. Women, and the European Union. It also lists the Mauritanian ministries of justice and health as its partners.
Moussa says she draws strength from the women she works with – and from the survivors most of all.
“This is our battle to lead in this country, and we have to get results. If you see women suffering every day, and those women … the only recourse they have is you, you will be strong,” Moussa says.
“If you commit, you can never take a step back.”
Jillian Kestler-D’Amours reported from Mauritania on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP).