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Mauritania: A Question of Rape
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Mauritania: A Question of Rape

In the Islamic state of Mauritania, women who have been raped often end up in prison. About 60 percent of women who come forward with allegations of sexual violence are accused of Zina, or a crime against morality. It is therefore unsurprising that most choose to remain silent. Fatima M'Baye, the first female lawyer in Mauritania, is part of the movement to blunt the harsher aspects of Sharia, and also help women overturn their convictions. 

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Produced by dev.tv and UNIFEM as part of the series "Women on the Front Line."

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Segment 1

TITLE
Women on the Front Line
ANNIE LENNOX
It threatens the lives of more young women than cancer. It affects one in three women worldwide. It leaves women mentally scarred for life. "It" is violence against women and girls. According to the UN, this brutality is on the rise. Our series comes from the frontline of the hidden war on women and girls. The field of conflict is just as likely to be the home as the brothel. This time on Women on the Front Line we are in Mauritania, West Africa, where campaigners and lawyers are challenging a law under which a woman actually risks jail for daring to accuse someone of raping her.
VOICEOVER
In Mauritania, West Africa, a woman who wants a man to be brought to justice for rape runs a high risk of imprisonment for making the accusation. This is 18-year-old Badia, not her real name. According to her lawyer, Badia claims she was raped and then became pregnant.
BADIA
I woke up at 4 a.m. I gave birth to a little girl who was stillborn.
VOICEOVER
Badia has been tried, convicted, and is in prison for the offenses of "Zina" (sex out of marriage) and infanticide, though Badia claims her baby was stillborn. She now risks life imprisonment.
ZEINABOU MOUSSA [Mauritanian Association for the Health of Women and Children]
There is the term that we refer to as "Zina," which is in Sharia, which is our law. A sexual relationship outside of marriage is considered to be a Zina.
VOICEOVER
In this Islamic state, the country's law, largely based on Sharia doctrine, insists that if sex results in a pregnancy, it cannot have been rape. Women on the Front Line filmed in Mauritania to follow up a United Nations' report which suggested that hard-line Sharia law was being relaxed in the country, especially in its treatment of women. We soon found that this was not altogether the case.
FATIMATA M'BAYE [human rights lawyer]
Absolutely. I can tell you that there are victims of rape who are imprisoned for Zina.
VOICEOVER
We discovered instances which appeared to be in direct contravention to the UN's universally agreed rights for women, something the Mauritanian government signed up to 10 years ago. This time on Women on the Front Line we explore the question of whether secular human rights can co-exist with orthodox interpretations of Islam based on Sharia law.
TITLE
A Question of Rape
VOICEOVER
Fifty years ago the capital of Mauritania, Nouakchott, was a tiny fishing village. It is now home to more than 600,000 people. Mauritania is an intensely conservative country undergoing rapid change. Getting Islamic traditions to co-exist with a legal code that complies with internationally agreed human rights norms, is proving to be a struggle.
FATIMATA M'BAYE
There was a time when we only applied Sharia law, when women were lashed or stoned. We don't do that anymore. Now we have a hybrid law.
VOICEOVER
Fatimata is herself a sign of that change. She is Mauritania's first female lawyer. We found the laws concerning women and sexual offenses in Mauritania are still imbued with some of the harshest strictures of Sharia law. Ten years ago, Mauritania ratified CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Speaking at a conference, the Minister for Women's Affairs confirms Mauritania's commitment.
FATIMETOU MINT KHATRY [Minister for Women's Affairs]
We stand with the international community in defending the rights of women and children against all forms of violence.
VOICEOVER
However, we were to find that when it comes to sexual abuse, the legal system, despite the ratification of CEDAW, still offers women little protection. So we asked a spokesperson for the Ministry of Women if they were now satisfied that the Mauritanian penal code protected women.
INTERVIEWER
In your opinion do the penal codes protect women?
MATY MINT BOIDE [Technical Advisor to the Women's Ministry]
They protect to a great extent, they protect to a very large extent. I am not a lawyer, I prefer not to answer that question.
FATIMATA M'BAYE [human rights lawyer]
There are times when I have helped girls who are victims of rape and who have been imprisoned because, quite simply, the court is not convinced that she is a victim of rape.
VOICEOVER
After visiting Mauritania in 2003, the UN produced a report stating: "Almost all of the women and girls who reported rape were accused of fornication and ended up in jail. Since 2003, however, no rape victim has been sent to jail." But, on our arrival in Mauritania, we quickly found that this was not the case.
DIENE KEITA [United Nations Population Fund]
To talk to you frankly, as a UN staff member today, we step back a little bit and today we are re-doing our homework again.
FATIMATA M'BAYE
A lot of women find themselves being transformed from victim into the accused. Merely an accusation of Zina and it is directly to prison.
MADAME CAMERA [Governess, Nouakchott Women's Prison]
I absolutely agree with what the lawyer has said, that's the reality.
VOICEOVER
Madam Camera is governess of the women's prison here in Nouakchott.
MADAME CAMERA
In 2006 and 2007 we had lots of cases of Zina in here.

Segment 2

VOICEOVER
Zeinabou Moussa was a midwife, and learnt first-hand from the women who came to see her just how many had been sexually abused. In 2001, Zeinabou set up the country's first rape crisis center.
ZEINABOU MOUSSA [Mauritanian Association for the Health of Women and Children]
In 2004, we had 45 cases. In 2005, we had 55 cases. In 2006 we had 66 cases and for 2007 we had 77 cases. That is only the women who came here to our center in Nouakchott.
VOICEOVER
Zeinabou and caseworker Miriam took us under the cover of night to a district of Nouakchott to meet Aisha and her mother. Aisha is a 24-year-old woman who says she was raped. Aisha, veiled and with an assumed name to protect her identity, alleges she was attacked by three young men and raped by one of them.
AISHA
One of the attackers had a blade or something in his hand.
MIRIAM [caseworker]
There were three attackers, only one of them raped her.
AISHA'S MOTHER
Aisha says when he was raping her he had a knife to her throat and he threatened to kill her if she said anything.
MIRIAM
He slashed her arm and leg with the knife.
VOICEOVER
Aisha maintains that her violator was in fact her suitor. Her mother claims he raped her to dishonor her. So, if she pursues the case and cannot prove she was raped, she could face imprisonment.
AISHA
This man wanted to marry me, but my family refused him because he wasn't a good man.
AISHA'S MOTHER
He behaved this way because we refused his proposal so he wanted to dishonor her.
ZEINABOU MOUSSA
To prove this rape we need the clothes with blood on them.
MIRIAM
But two days ago Aisha's mother washed the bloodstained clothes.
ZEINABOU MOUSSA
The girl, if she doesn't have any proof of rape, can be condemned for Zina.
VOICEOVER
Because there is now no physical evidence to back Aisha's allegation, Zeinabou worries that Aisha herself may be charged with immorality or "Zina." She arranges for Aisha to see a lawyer at the rape crisis center. Lawyer Bilal puts some searching questions to Aisha about her relationship.
AISHA
One day, he asked us to sleep together. I said I was a virgin and I would never do that, I said I would never do it because of the shame it would bring on my family. He said, "One day I will do it to you whether you say yes or no, I will do it to you anyway."
VOICEOVER
The former Public Prosecutor confirmed to us that Aisha would almost certainly be accused of Zina.
BEN AMAR OULD SALAK [former prosecutor]
The fact that she went out late in the evening and met a man is virtually consent.
VOICEOVER
According to Imam Salak, Aisha's actions lead him to believe she is also guilty of threatening Islamic morality.
HADENINE OULD SALAK [President, Association of Imams]
First she went out with a stranger, therefore violating a religious rule. Then she committed Zina (sex out of marriage). Because she is the one who put herself in that position, she doesn't have an excuse. Zina was committed and that is a serious crime in Islamic Sharia.
BILAL OULD DICK [Lawyer, Rape Crisis Centre]
I have to tell you there is a risk that it will be interpreted as not exactly a rape. Because the relationship you had with him isn't allowed. It's not allowed under article 306, boyfriends and girlfriends it's not allowed, it's forbidden by law.
VOICEOVER
Zeinabou and lawyer Bilal decide that for Aisha to press charges would be too risky, so she has been "dis-encouraged' -- as they term it -- in pursuing the rape allegation.
BILAL OULD DICK
We "dis-encourage" her from pressing charges if we think that she risks of being accused of Zina.
ZEINABOU MOUSSA [Mauritanian Association for the Health of Women and Children]
Sometimes, If I don't think it will be in the interest of the girl, I prefer that she doesn't involve the justice system, but even more, I would prefer that the boys are arrested and the girls get recognized as victims.

Segment 3

1029 What exactly is a public outrage to Islamic morality?
VOICEOVER
We visit Nouakchott women's prison and we meet 18-year-old Badia, who alleges she was made pregnant through rape. She has been charged with Zina and infanticide and now faces life in prison. We also talk to four Senegalese women who are awaiting trial. Every night, police patrol the streets checking identity papers. Under article 306 of the penal code -- "a threat to Islamic morality" -- you can be arrested for anything deemed as contravening this law.
IRABIHA MINT ABDEL WEDOUD [National Forum for the Protection of the Rights of Women and Children]
If we look at article 306, it says "every person who has committed an outrage to public decency and to Islamic morality ..." What is a public outrage to Islamic morality? Is it leaving your house to take out the rubbish at say 9 p.m. in the evening? So, what exactly is a public outrage to Islamic morality?
JUDGE ALIOU BA [President, District Court of Appeal]
Anything that threatens good morality. Article 306 is becoming a "catch-all" article where you can put anything you want.
VOICEOVER
In Nouakchott's women's prison, lawyer Fatimata M'Baye spoke to these Senegalese women who were arrested under article 306. They claim they were simply working as washerwomen, and selling incense in a stranger's house when the police raided.
WOMAN 1
I have a little business; I bring incense and clothes from Senegal to sell.
WOMAN 2
There are some young people I wash clothes for.
FATIMATA M'BAYE [human rights lawyer]
Do you know each other, the four of you?
WOMAN 3
We don't know each other, we are all Senegalese, we just happened to be in the same house when the police raided and they brought us here to prison.
WOMAN 4
Is it right to lock someone up in prison for eight months?
FATIMATA M'BAYE
Absolutely not.
WOMAN 4
It hurts.
FATIMATA M'BAYE
It's going to be alright, it's going to be alright.
VOICEOVER
A prison truck arrives to take the four women to court for their trial.
FATIMATA M'BAYE
Because they work as cleaners and they are alone in these houses, when the police raid, they accuse these women of Zina.
VOICEOVER
The women's lawyer has just found out the charges against them.
MOHAMED OULD LAGHDAF [defense lawyer]
The women are accused of threatening good morality and Zina.
VOICEOVER
The lawyer goes back into court to argue the case for the women. Our crew was not allowed into the court. Back at the women's prison, we catch up with the story of 18-year-old Badia. Convicted of Zina and infanticide, she faces life imprisonment and is awaiting her sentence.
BILAL OULD DICK
In front of a judge, she said that she had been raped. She was a victim of rape, who was accused of a Zina, because as you know there are lines between rape and Zina that aren't clearly defined. It would seem that she was raped by a man she knew. She is also accused of infanticide but she alleges that the child was "still-born."
VOICEOVER
Under Mauritanian law, pregnancy is regarded as proof of having freely "consented" to sex. Madam Camera tries to coax the story from Badia.
MADAME CAMERA [Governess, Nouakchott Women's Prison]
Do not be afraid or ashamed in front of me, I'm like your mum, that's all.
BADIA
I can't say anything, what has happened is God's will.
FATIMATA M'BAYE [human rights lawyer]
They prefer to keep quiet because they know that if they speak out, they themselves will become the accused. They're going to be accused of provoking the situation. They're going to accuse them of being out unaccompanied. They're going to accuse them of having tempted the man into having sex. So they prefer to say nothing at all.
VOICEOVER
Article 307 of the penal code states that pregnancy is only possible through consensual sex, therefore by definition it must be impossible to get pregnant through rape.
FATIMATA M'BAYE
For them, pregnancy cannot be the result of a rape.
MADAME CAMERA
Really?
FATIMATA M'BAYE
For them it's consensual sex, and that's why girls who become pregnant after a rape sadly find themselves here in prison for Zina.
MADAME CAMERA
For Zina.
VOICEOVER
Thus, because Badia was pregnant, her rape allegation is inadmissible under Mauritanian law. Meanwhile, back at the courthouse, the verdict on the Senegalese women is returned.
MOHAMED OULD LAGHDAF
The other two were accused of threatening good morality, they have been condemned to one year with a year's bail. And for the other women it's two years in prison. It's too long.
SENEGALESE WOMAN
They are sending us to prison for two years. It's so bad, but God is good.
MOHAMED OULD LAGHDAF
The only evidence that was presented in court was a packet of condoms that was found on one of the women. It's not a crime to carry condoms.
VOICEOVER
Two of the Senegalese women were found guilty in this court of law of prostitution and running a brothel and were driven back to prison to serve out the remainder of their sentence. The other two women were charged under the "catch-all" article 306 and are being repatriated to Senegal.

Segment 4

VOICEOVER
As well as the confusion that surrounds the law of Zina and Islamic morality, Mauritanian law also fails to define rape, leaving it wide open to interpretation.
ZEINABOU MOUSSA [Mauritanian Association for the Health of Women and Children]
In law they need to clearly define rape and clearly define of all forms of sexual violence, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, and rape.
IRABIHA MINT ABDEL WEDOUD [National Forum for the Protection of the Rights of Women and Children]
Once a victim, a girl says, "No, I don't want this sexual relationship," and then she is raped, no matter what her situation, whether she is in her room, wearing a nightshirt or even naked, no matter where she is, it is rape.
VOICEOVER
With the laws as they stand, without access to forensic evidence and a woman's word against a man's, the law is loaded, says Fatimata.
FATIMATA M'BAYE [human rights lawyer]
Today, how can a woman possibly prove the contrary to a judge? How can she prove that she was a victim of rape? She can't, she has nothing. The only thing she has today to help her is what the Mauritanian justice system gives her.
BILAL OULD DICK
The fact that the penal codes aren't clear and precise doesn't help anyone, not even the accused. Their right to a defense is also threatened.
VOICEOVER
A spokesperson for the Women's Ministry says that the government is going to change the codes to bring them into line with the UN convention.
MATY MINT BOIDE [Technical Advisor to the Women's Ministry]
Certainly there will be a revision of these penal codes.
INTERVIEWER
When?
MATY MINT BOIDE
It is a work in progress, we are certainly in the process of doing it for sure.
INTERVIEWER
Next year, in 10 years, in 20 years?
MATY MINT BOIDE
The state is certainly taking the problem in hand, so that means it will be very soon for sure.
VOICEOVER
Though the Mauritanian constitution guarantees equality in public office, 10 years after CEDAW was ratified, there are still no women magistrates, judges, public prosecutors, or police commissioners.
INTERVIEWER
Can women be magistrates and Imams, here in Sharia doctrine?
HADENINE OULD SALAK [President, Association of Imams]
No, a woman cannot be a judge or a president of the republic, she has access to all other jobs.
IRABIHA MINT ABDEL WEDOUD [National Forum for the Protection of the Rights of Women and Children]
I respect the honorable magistrates, but most of them belong to the traditional school of thought. They are all men who read and interpret this text according to their life experience as religious men.
INTERVIEWER
If you ratified CEDAW, then why aren't the judges applying it?
MATY MINT BOIDE
It is perhaps because judges are not well informed about the law of CEDAW. CEDAW is an international convention that should be applied to the laws of Mauritanian.
VOICEOVER
Although there have been some inroads into sensitizing officials, Zeinabou says a lot more work has to be done with the judiciary and law enforcers.
ZEINABOU MOUSSA [Mauritanian Association for the Health of Women and Children]
There needs to be sensitization campaigns with the doctors, with the police, and the magistrates.
VOICEOVER
Zeinabou believes that in principle Sharia law contains all the human rights women need. But, she says, it's all down to the interpretation.
ZEINABOU MOUSSA
We're not looking for more than we are entitled to, which is already in Muslim law and that Sharia gives us. I'd say that sometimes we don't have access to our rights because of interpretation or misunderstanding.
VOICEOVER
Sharia law was written to protect both sexes equally, says Imam Tah.
HAMDINE OULD TAH [Professor of Islamic Law]
Islam has a clear vision when it comes to men and women. Islam gives privileges to men and not women and sometimes vice versa.
HADENINE OULD SALAK
Because these are rules that have not been changed by people according to their interests, they came from Allah. Therefore they are fair and just for all people.
VOICEOVER
Today, Mauritania faces a more extreme version of the challenges that other Islamic countries have had to face: How to reconcile custom with international norms on women's rights.
FATIMATA M'BAYE
We want more than we now have, we want a law that protects us. When a woman has been a victim of rape, when she has lost her honor, when she has lost her future, and when she has no hope left to continue to live, it is the state's responsibility to protect her.
TITLE
[end credits]