Africa, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS-MAURITANIA: 'Justice and Equality for All'

Ebrima Sillah interviews MARIAM MINT MUSTAPHA, politician and rights activist.

NOUAKCHOTT, May 26 2009 (IPS) - As Mauritania prepares for presidential elections on June 6, women's groups have outlined a clear and compelling agenda for women. The trick will be getting the country's mostly male politicians to listen.

Mariam Mint Mustapha: We'll leave the presidency to men... for now. Credit:  Ebrima Sillah/IPS

Mariam Mint Mustapha: We'll leave the presidency to men... for now. Credit: Ebrima Sillah/IPS

Indicators measuring quality of life for Mauritanian women show there is plenty of room for improvement. For instance, less than 50 percent of girls enrolled in secondary schools complete their education, according to UNICEF; two in five Mauritanian girls never attend school at even the primary level.

The U.N. body also reports extremely high rates of maternal mortality – 1,200 women and girls die in Mauritania each year due to pregnancy-related complications. Additionally, 24,000 women and girls suffer injuries or disabilities in childbirth.

Mariam Mint Mustapha, a women's rights activist and politician for the Union for Democracy and Progress, spoke to IPS about her drive to raise women's profile in politics.

IPS: For years Mauritanian women have been mere spectators on the political scene, in that you're only visible when elections are to be organised. So this time around, what do you want in terms of practical issues to see for women's development issues? Mariam Mint Mustapha: You are right that most of the time these politicians only talk about women's issues in Mauritania during election time. Immediately after the campaign is over they close their doors on us.

And that is why this time around we are all active on the ground, telling women to take a strong and unified position that will serve as a common platform for all of us.

This time we want our representatives to come up with laws that create equal opportunities for men and women to prosper in society, like access to credit to establish small-scale businesses.

We also want to ensure that more qualified women are appointed to influential government positions to serve as role models for others. Remember this is a nomadic country, where until recently girls' education was a very low priority.

We are also advocating for parliament to come up with laws that eliminate all kinds of discrimination and harmful traditional practices that affect the rights of children and women.

In other words we are calling for justice and equity for all.

IPS: You are a politician and you also work with women in the slums around the capital. If a new president is elected, what would you like him to do for the poor? MM: A lot!!! You've seen what the situation is like for people living in the slums.

There are no proper health facilities here, no electricity, no clean water… absolutely nothing that you can be proud of as a city resident. These places are like ghettos actually.

And that is why over the years it's been difficult to convince people in the slums to register and vote, because they felt successive governments don't actually care about them.

Now, in collaboration with some people in government and the community leaders in the slums, I have prepared a working document for the development and improvement of life generally in the slums. Some of the ideas include provision of pipe-borne water, solar energy, health centres and public schools that have permanent structures.

It is interesting to note that almost all the public schools in the slums are just temporary structures, set up in tents.

We are also calling on the government to provide funding for income-generating projects in the slums so that, in time these people will also be able to stand on their own.

IPS: Do you also want to see the number of women cabinet ministers increased from their current level of just four out of a total of 26? MM: We have been calling for an increase in the number of women cabinet ministers from their current level. However our demand is to have both quantitative and qualitative ministerial positions as well.

What we have now is a situation where women are given less-relevant ministerial positions and we want to see this change. It's unfair for 52 percent of the population to continue to be under-represented.

In addition to more ministerial positions, we also want women to be visible in terms of high positions they occupy in government so that it can serve as a good argument to conservative parents that it's not a waste of time sending their daughters to school.

There is also a new disturbing trend in Mauritania: the high divorce rate in the country… now that burden comes back to women.

So it is important that women are given the right education so that they can be independent and stand on their own.

IPS: Do you long for a day when you will have a womAn as president of Mauritania? MM: A woman as president of Mauritania? Oh no, not for now. Because that will be seen as asking too much…

Remember, we are fighting for basic issues for women yet we are facing all this resistance. I wonder what it would be like if we ask for the presidency?

You know Mauritania is almost 100 percent Muslim and also a highly conservative society. So for now we will leave the presidency to men but let them also leave other important ministries for us.

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