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MAURITANIA: First Steps for Women's Cooperatives

Ebrima Sillah

NOUAKCHOTT, Jul 10 2009 (IPS) - In December 2008, a group of young women staged a protest against the common practice of fattening women before marriage, intended to make them more attractive in the eyes of men. The protest did not immediately result in the end of the practice, but it was a landmark event showing a new assertiveness among Mauritanian women in a society where men use tradition and sharia law to maintain their dominance.

A multi-sectoral approach by government in partnership with NGOs and women's rights groups in Mauritania has seen a marked improvement in the status of women in the country. The presence of Mauritanian women is today making itself felt in politics, commerce and other areas of public life hitherto considered as no-go areas for them.

In 2006, women launched their own political party which contested the parliamentary of that but without winning a seat. Beyond that, women have been raising vociferous challenges to some long-standing social norms and values.


Habibatou Saddiq Mint Daoud is one of the most recognised faces in Mauritania, a woman with successful businesses in the capital and seven regional centres across the country. She imports a range of goods including groceries, canned foods, textiles and household products.

Initially things were tough for this self-made woman, who started out with a single grocery shop in the capital, Nouakchott. "When I started my business some 26 years ago, many people in Mauritania – especially conservative men – felt that a woman is not supposed to sit behind the counter selling and mixing with the opposite sex. But today things are changing for the better. Most of my employees, about 65 of them, are women who work as sales agents."

Her case is a precious exception. She was fortunate enough to inherit a lot of camels from her parents, some of which she sold to start her grocery shop. "Initially nobody, even my own closed family members, thought I could last this long in the business let alone expand to this level."

Women are more usually confined to domestic responsibilities. In Mauritania it is considered part of a man’s responsibilities to work and provide for his wife. But things are changing.

Abass Braham, a blogger and social critic, told IPS, "It seems a long way since the country got its first woman minister in the person of Khadijatou Bint Ahmed in 1987. Since then the rapid pace of urbanisation and increased outside influence that came with economic modernisation made it possible to question and even challenge customary behaviour patterns in some parts of the country.

"The expansion of modernisation meant that traditional nomadic customs were subjected to close scrutiny… Thus you see many women doing business or other jobs traditionally reserved for men."

Poverty and education

According to UNICEF, girls’ education is still a challenging issue for Mauritania. Statistics on girls’ enrolment shows a high attrition rate of 30.3 percent, mainly due to extreme poverty of parents, distance from home to school, domestic chores, early marriages and social discrimination against girls.

According to UNICEF, 74 percent of girls in Mauritania are enrolled in primary school, but this figure drops drastically to below 40 percent as they enter secondary schools.

Poverty is still an issue for many, and school fees for girls are among the first things to be sacrificed when money is short.

Terra Vivante, an NGO that works on women's cooperatives, local development and good governance, is simultaneously addressing both issues. Its non-formal education programmes are teaching rural women and slum dwellers in Mauritania’s capital Nouakchott basic literacy as well as running a micro-credit scheme.

Terra Vivante’s country director, Malayaine Mohammed, told IPS that in the past four years, over 20,000 rural women have benefited from his organisation’s non-formal education lessons. "Many among them have now been able to fill the void in their lives, setting up their own community gardening projects or small businesses."

Terra Vivante is also working to help women in Nouakchott’s rundown districts to access credit. The NGO is implementing a government-funded credit programme that helps slum dwellers get money to start small businesses. Beneficiaries receive up to 1,000 dollars, interest-free.

Terra Vivante helps women prepare a business plan and prepare a sworn affidavit which members sign, reaffirming they will repay their debt over three years.

These women have formed themselves into cooperative groups with a total membership of over 30,000, and invested the loans in the rearing of goats, sheep and cattle, an enterprise which both brings in cash and adds much-needed nutrition to household diets in the form of milk for domestic use. The programme has been key to slowly reducing reliance on food rations from the World Food Programme.

Ammina Mohammed, a member of one of the women’s cooperatives, told IPS, "Thanks to the credit scheme, at least I can now afford to buy food on my own without having to rely on WFP’s rations. I now have ruminants that I sell. I also make soap and sell within the local community. It has made a big difference to my life."

Terra Vivante’s country director Malayaine Mohammed told IPS that so far they have encountered no problems with repayment of the loans "because the women see this as helping them out of poverty so they don't mess with it."

In a country where girls' education is a low priority, access to this credit scheme might mean that there will be more prominently successful women like Siddiq Mint Daoud in the future.

The women who are part of Terra Vivante’s credit scheme feel they are better off now than they were a decade ago. Mohammed told IPS that "most of us parents were not able to send all our children especially girls to school because there were persistent household food shortages. So girls were always required to help in domestic chores. Now with a little cash in our hand, parents are sending girls to school."

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