Changing culture means nothing if the law does not change

Written by Jemima Lovatt, Founder of Thrive & One Young World Ambassador.

She organised the 'Changing the law on domestic abuse' event co-hosted by One Young World on 15 September:

On 12 April 2020 in Mauritania, the body of Kadijetou Oumar Sow, known as Djiba, a woman of thirty years, was found raped, murdered and abandoned by her rapist in the middle of the desert. Djiba was one of many stories of domestic abuse that the Mauritanian people had become aware of in recent times. The stories included the six girls subject to gang rape by their father, Toutou Mint Kebir a 12-year-old raped by her master, Teslem Mint Aboubekren a 5 years old who was raped and murdered and of the many women who are beaten and cut with a machete.

National outrage prompted the Mauritanian Parliament to vote to start a legislative reform process addressing violence against women and girls and domestic abuse. The law has been debated and failed to pass on previous occasions, so when I spoke with activist Dickel Dia about the law she was quietly optimistic that change was on the table again, but not certain that it would go ahead. The opposition forces are entrenched in Al-Qaeda's teachings and are dominated by people loyal to the former Taliban government.

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Image source

Dickel and I began to discuss the cultural shift that had occurred to result in the shocked and horrified response felt across the country. Dickel shared with me the changes in education and the way community leaders had adopted new approaches which had led to a better respect for women. However, this was not reflected in the law where marital rape remained legal and physical domestic abuse could only be prosecuted through the standard criminal codes for assault. So, I suggested that Thrive could convene an event bringing together the government, international NGOs, local charities and activists. The purpose of this event would be rooted in strategic advocacy: to ensure that the government sticks to its commitment by drawing in the attention and scrutiny of international and national actors.

Mmê Lo, the UNFPA Mauritania’s Gender and Human Rights Lead chaired the discussion. She applauded the government’s decision to commit to this Bill which will protect over 50% of the Mauritanian population and noted its timely nature given the COVID-19 outbreak and the impact of the Shadow Pandemic.

Mauritania event speakers
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The panellists were:

Abdellahi Diakité: Legal Advisor to the Minister of Social Affairs, Children and the Family (MASEF). He has closely followed the development and process through which all versions of the Bill have gone in his capacity as legal counsel.

Zeinebou Taleb Moussa: women's rights activist and activist for over 20 years, she has been running a reception center for GBV survivors since 1999. She is one of the initiators of the first version of the bill against GBV in 2010.

Dickel Dia: A young gender activist and One Young World Ambassador. Dickel draws her energy from the fact that she was a victim of violence from a very young age. She holds a professional license in French and English from the Higher Professional Institute of Languages, Translation and Interpreting in Nouakchott.

The proposed law clearly criminalises rape, insults and other humiliating words that may affect the dignity of women and girls. It recognises the psychological impact of this acts and the consequences on their mental health. It strengthens the capacity of women and girls and their lawyers to seek justice, to convict the perpetrators and to compensate the victims. It also sends a clear signal to society that times are changing and women must be respected as full and equal citizens. The law is focused on protection, prevention and repression.

However, the panellists noted some limitations. Firstly, the protection of sodomised child boys is not included. Secondly, the bill does not explicitly criminalise marital rape. Thirdly, article 7 provides that the withdrawal of a complaint extinguishes public action which may lead to a lack of rigor in the prosecution of perpetrators. Fourth, article 11 requires the state to provide for the medical care for victims which should be extended to take charge of their professional reintegration.

Panellists called on governments around the world to recognise that they have an obligation to protection women and that without clear laws addressing these issues it will be impossible to account for and punish abuse. They called on activists to be proactive in initiating these kinds of laws, that there must be focus on rural parts of a country as well as the urban centres, and that government should work with civil society partners.

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Watch the session

This conversation was one that could so easily have not happened. A meaningful meeting of governments, international agencies and activists, of men and women and of people from a range of ages. How often does that happen? In the UK, the consultation process on the Domestic Abuse Bill has not been as open. I wrote to every MP in January, endorsed and supported by two major domestic abuse charities, and received no response. Not even from my own local MP.

Last week was significant: it saw the beginning of UNGA 2020, it was 25 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing where Clinton gave her famous ‘women’s rights are human rights’ speech, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away. It felt like a week of great things starting and ending. It is now commonly accepted that women’s rights are absolutely human rights but 25 years ago that was not the case. I feel privileged to have grown up in a time and place where gender equality is something I expect, I don’t always get it, but I can demand it. Ginsberg started bringing her cases as a very junior lawyer. She moved the law towards equal protection for men and women. She saw the protests and the marches, the era of Gloria Steinem, and she made their demands the law.

So with our event on the proposed law in Mauritania, I hope we have moved the dial a little closer to changing the law to reflect the cultural change Mauritanian women are rightfully claiming.