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Committee on the Rights of the Child examines the situation of children in Mauritania

GENEVA (18 September 2018) - The Committee on the Rights of the Child today concluded its consideration of the third to fifth periodic report of Mauritania on measures taken to implement the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Introducing the report, Khadeijetou Mbareck Fall, Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism of Mauritania, said that despite the challenges, Mauritania made serious advancements in strengthening legal and institutional framework for the protection of the rights of the child.  It had criminalized slavery and torture, and adopted the General Code of Child Protection which articulated Mauritania's international obligations within its socio-cultural context and offered a systemic protection for the fundamental rights of the child.  The National Council on Children provided guidance on the development and adoption of national policies and strategies for the survival, protection, development, and participation of children, and the National Strategy for the Protection of Children enabled the establishment of a system of protection of children against violence, exploitation, discrimination, abuse, and neglect.  Education was key, the Minister stressed, and that was why Mauritania had adopted a sectoral policy for the development of education that resulted in 100 percent enrolment rate in elementary schools; it had instituted free and compulsory basic education for children aged six to 14, and had established a children’s parliament.  As for the challenges, the Minister mentioned infrastructure development related to children; access for children in difficulty to quality education, health, drinking water, and sanitation; and the financing of the child protection system and in particular activities for the elimination of child labour.

In the dialogue that followed, Committee Experts welcomed the ratification of several human rights instruments and commended the recent adoption of the anti-discrimination law, wondering whether it was aligned with the provisions of the Convention in terms of the definition of discrimination and prohibited grounds for discrimination.  One particularly grave area of concern was the high prevalence of early marriages in Mauritania, where 35 per cent of all marriages involved children and 16 per cent of girls under the age of 18 were married.  Other harmful practices were mentioned in the dialogue, including female genital mutilation and force feeding, with Experts asking about the impact of confiage or fostering of children on their wellbeing, especially in case of children without parental care.  A great portion of children – 42 per cent – were reportedly left out of the birth registration system, putting them at great risk of abuse, exploitation or trafficking, and limiting their access to basic services, education in particular.  The Experts inquired about the high rates of infant and child mortality, especially in rural areas, and the elevated rates of mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS, and noted with concern the high prevalence of teenage and early pregnancies, and a very strict anti-abortion law.  Lamenting that only three per cent of the gross domestic product was spent on education, Experts noted with concern that the lack of access to public education – especially for refugee and asylum seeking children - pushed many to Koranic schools, where they risked abuse and exploitation, such as being forced to beg.

Cephas Lumina, Coordinator of the Committee’s Task Force on the report of Mauritania, concluded by expressing hope that State party would use the Committee’s concluding observations to enhance the interventions to realize the rights of all its children.

In concluding remarks Ms. Mbareck Fall thanked the Committee for the opportunity on behalf of everyone involved in the protection of the children’s rights.

Renate Winter, Committee Chairperson, expressed hope that the Committee’s advice and recommendations would be taken into account.

The delegation of Mauritania included representatives of the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism; Ministry of Agriculture; Ministry of Social Affairs, Children and Family; Ministry of Justice; Ministry of Public Service, Work and Modernization of Administration; General Directorate for National Safety; Centre for the Protection and Social Integration of Children; Office of the Human Rights Commissioner, Humanitarian Action and Civil Society Relations; and members of the Permanent Mission of Mauritania to the United Nations Office at Geneva.

All the documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage.  The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings will be available via the following link: http://webtv.un.org/meetings-events/.

The Committee will next meet in public at 3 p.m. today, 18 September, to start the consideration of the combined fifth to sixth periodic report of El Salvador under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC/C/SLV/5-6).

Report

The Committee has before it the combined third to fifth periodic report of Mauritania under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC/C/MRT/3-5).

Presentation of the report
 
KHADIJETOU MBARECK FALL, Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism of Mauritania, said in the introduction of the report, that despite the challenges it faced, Mauritania remained faithful to the pattern of development it had set for consolidating the rule of law and preserving democratic gains.  Serious advancements had been made in the promotion and protection of children’s rights, including through the adoption of the Law on Criminalization of Slavery, the Law on Legal Assistance, and the Law on Fight Against Torture, among others.  The General Code of Child Protection was based on a global vision of the situation of the child; it articulated Mauritania's international obligations within its socio-cultural context; offered a systemic repression of the attacks on the fundamental rights of the child; and provided for the management of social and judicial protection.  Mauritania, continued the Minister, had also strengthened its institutional framework, including by creation of the National Council on Children to assist the Department for Children in the coordination, development, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation of policies, strategies and programmes for children.  The National Council also provided guidance on the development and adoption of national policies and strategies for the survival, protection, development, and participation of children.  The Centre for the Social Protection and Promotion of Children with Disabilities had been set and there were regional centres for the social integration of children in five regions of the country.

The Strategy for Accelerated Growth and Shared Prosperity, a comprehensive approach to supporting the development, promotion, survival, and protection of children, integrated the National Strategy for the Protection of Children and the National Strategy to Combat Female Genital Mutilation.  The Ministry of Social Affairs, Children and the Family had developed, with the support of the United Nations Children's Fund, a National Strategy for the Protection of Children, which had enabled the establishment of a system of protection of children against violence, exploitation, discrimination, abuse, and neglect, added Ms. M’Bareck Fall.  The activities were being coordinated – in a decentralized manner – also between the private sector and the non-governmental organizations, especially in the domain of the identification of and assistance to children at risk.  In 2017, there were 17,630 children in high-risk situations.  The 2015 National Action Plan for the Elimination of Child Labour aimed, inter alia, to strengthen the legal and institutional framework in this domain, while a particular importance was being accorded to gender-based violence against children, with regional family dispute resolution centres set up throughout the country.

Education was key, the Minister stressed, and that was why Mauritania had adopted a sectoral policy for the development of education that resulted in 100 percent enrolment rate in elementary schools, and had instituted free and compulsory basic education for children aged six to 14.  The sexual and reproductive health strategy contained a range of measures, including those aiming to ensure the availability of essential and emergency obstetric services.  Vaccinations were free of charge for children up to the age of five, and more than 150 children with HIV/AIDS had been cared for in the mobile health centre in Nouakchott.  The National TADAMOUN Agency, set up to address the aftermath of slavery and fight poverty, was implementing a national cash transfer programme to support early childhood development.  A children’s parliament was in place, with children selected based on their school performance, with equal participation of girls and boys, and with a representation of children with disabilities.  In conclusion, the Minister acknowledged the outstanding issued that needed addressing, in particular infrastructure development related to children; access for children in difficulty to quality education, health, drinking water and sanitation; and the financing of the National Plan of Action for the Elimination of Child Labour and the child protection system.

Questions by the Committee Experts

CEPHAS LUMINA, Coordinator of the Task Force on the report of Mauritania, welcomed the ratification by Mauritania of the Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol, the Convention on Enforced Disappearances, and the Arab Charter on Human Rights, and took positive note of the Government’s continued cooperation with international and regional human rights mechanisms.

The Rapporteur asked the delegation to explain how it ensured that the revisions of the national law on gender-based violence were consistent with international standards, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and Convention on the Rights of the Child.  Were there plans to undertake a comprehensive review of all legislation relating to children in order to ensure that it was fully compatible with the Convention?  Were there any plans to ratify the third optional protocol to the Committee on the Rights of the Child on communication?  A draft law revising the 1969 law on civil organizations was pending adoption - were there further developments regarding its adoption?

What were the intentions concerning the adoption of a new comprehensive policy and strategy to replace the National Child Protection Strategy 2009-2013?  Turning to the mobilization and allocation of resources, the Rapporteur remarked that Mauritania was at high risk of debt distress, which would mean that it might lose access to external funding sources.  In this context, he asked the delegation what the Government was doing to mobilize domestic resources and how it ensured the most efficient use of the limited budgetary resources allocated to the social sector.

Other Experts were very concerned by the prevalence of early marriage, as 35 per cent of all marriages involved children, and urged Mauritania to prohibit the marriage under the age of 18 under all circumstance.  Another area of concern was that birth registration continued to be very low, particularly in rural areas and among vulnerable groups, where as many as 42 percent of children had not been registered.  The Experts encouraged the State party to abolish the late birth registration fees, increase the use of mobile registration units in the remote areas, and provide systematic birth registration of children born to Malian refugees and of children born out of wedlock.  What was the nationality of children born to Mauritanian mothers and foreign fathers?

The delegation was asked about places of worship and alternative religious education for non-Muslim children, and whether there had been any proceedings for violation of children’s privacy.  The State party’s report was silent on the issue of slavery, which had been recognized as a crime against humanity - what were the results of the implementation of the national action plan on combatting slavery, and could the delegation comment on the work of special tribunals that had been established to deal with slavery, but which had issued only one sentence for the crime.

Welcoming the recent adoption of anti-discrimination law, Experts asked whether its definition of discrimination was in line with the Convention and whether it covered all grounds of discrimination provided for in article 2 of the Convention.  Raising concern about discrimination against girls and children in vulnerable or disadvantaged situations, Experts asked about concrete measures taken to ensure that they enjoyed rights and access to services on an equal footing with other children.

On the principle of the best interest of the child, the delegation was asked to explain how it was actually implemented in laws and policy, whether the procedure and elements for the assessment and determination of the best interest of the child had been established, and how judges, social workers and other professionals making decisions concerning children were being trained in the implementation of that principle.

Turning to violence against children, the Experts asked if corporal punishment, whipping, and amputations, were still a part of the Criminal Code, and also asked about measures to eliminate the use of corporal punishment as an accepted form of discipline.  Was it mandatory for a professional to report child abuse, including sexual abuse, and to whom?  What acts were considered and sanctioned as “rape” under the Criminal Code?

The prevalence of harmful practices such as early marriages and female genital mutilation was an issue of concern – could a marriage be registered if one of the spouses could not prove that she or he was above the age of 18 due to lack of birth certificate.  What was the situation concerning forced feeding practice and were there any measures to prevent it?

Responses by the Delegation

In their responses to questions and issues raised by Committee Experts, the delegation reaffirmed that, according to the Constitution, Sharia was the only source of law, and its intangible principle.  The personal status code defined the age of marriage at 18 years old.  A judge could authorise a marriage under the age of 18 only in accordance with the civil and penal legislative provisions and considering the best interest of the child.  The law severely punished the marriages of interest, and there was a complaint mechanism against this type of union.

With regard to the transmission of nationality from mother to the child, the delegation explained that international law applied even if it was contrary to national law, and there was no discrimination in the transfer of nationality.  Double nationality was not permitted by the law, thus a child born to a foreign father could choose either the mother’s Mauritanian nationality, of the father’s nationality.

The law against slavery had been passed and the special courts had been set up; to date, they had tried only one case.  In 2018, the courts had reviewed all the cases from previous years, finding that all had been properly addressed.

On birth registration, the delegation emphasized the operation of the National Agency for Civil Status, created in 2011 as a result of a bold project.  It used biometric and digital data with last generation face and fingerprint recognition to identify migrants as well as the nationals who - because of lack of civil status - were deemed to stagnation.  The Agency allowed all, nationals and migrants alike, to receive a biometric resident card.  Additionally, the Agency offered a range of services to all Mauritanians abroad, including to register the birth of a child, register a marriage, or obtain a driver's license.  

A Committee Expert remarked that this project of developing civil registration and institutions of civil registration of citizens, including for Mauritanian citizens worldwide, was a very expensive one, and wondered why instead the investment had not been directed into ensuring that more than 50 percent of children, who had not been registered at birth, were registered.

The delegation explained that the Agency had enacted a range of provisions to improve the registration rates, and noting that in 2016 some 167,000 children had not been registered at birth refuted the claim of 50 per cent of newly born not being included in the Mauritanian civil registry.

The new Children's Code, the delegation continued, raised the need to consider the best interests of the child in all areas, and equated female genital mutilation with acts of torture and ill-treatment.  Rape, according to the Criminal Code, was a crime, with aggravating circumstances if the victim is a minor.

Future magistrates received training in criminal justice for minors, and there was a training module on the principle of the best interest of the child, which was administered to all those working in child protections.  The complaint mechanism set in place by the criminal law was also applied regardless of the context.  

Mauritania had adopted an anti-discrimination law which incorporated the provisions of the Convention, prohibited discrimination on all grounds defined by the Convention, and also addressed the effect of discrimination.  Given the principle of equality, the ethnicity-disaggregated statistical data on discrimination were not being collected.

Non-Muslim children enjoyed the freedom of religion or belief, explained the delegation; there was a church in Nouakchott and no security problems had ever occurred.

Questions by Committee Experts

In the next round of questions, Committee Experts inquired about the existence of an independent complaint mechanisms for children, for example through Mauritania’s national human rights institution.

CEPHAS LUMINA, Coordinator of the Task Force on the report of Mauritania, acknowledged the legal protections in place concerning children without parental care and, noting the lack of comprehensive data on such children, asked about the impact of the practice of confiage or fostering on the wellbeing of children without parental care.  The Committee was concerned about the condition of the large number of children in Koranic schools, who were forced to beg.  Was there any alternative care framework for the care and supervision of children in foster families and in institutions?  Turning to the kafala system, the Rapporteur welcomed the establishment of a mechanism for the follow up and evaluation of this system and stressed that the evaluation must be conducted by the Children’s Rights Directorate.

Another Expert asked what measures had been taken to protect children with disabilities, including in the remote and rural areas, and what progress was being made in the implementation of the national child protection strategy.  What was being done to integrate children with disabilities in public school networks, especially those living in rural areas?

The Committee was greatly concerned about the high rates of infant and child mortality, especially in rural areas, as well as about the very high rate of mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS.  What concrete measures had been adopted in this regard, including to increase children’s access to hospital in rural areas?  Was breastfeeding a priority in Mauritania and had any campaigns been organized to promote it?  The high rate of teenage pregnancy was another burning matter, the Expert noted, asking about sexual education in schools, promotion of birth control, and the intentions to ease the country’s strict abortion law.

Lamenting that only three per cent of the gross domestic product was spent on education, the Expert asked about steps taken to ensure the enjoyment of the children’s right to play.  The number of private schools had been significantly increased in the last decade - how were the educational standards, the curriculum, and teachers’ qualifications monitored in private schools?  Six public schools in the capital had closed – had that been necessary and what had happened to their students?  How was Mauritania tackling the hidden costs of education, and how was it monitoring the performance of madrassas and Koranic schools?

Other Experts noted with concern that the requirement to demonstrate the parents’ marriage certificate impeded birth registration of refugee children, and was also concerned that lack of access to mainstream public education pushed many such children to Koranic schools, where they risked abuse and exploitation.  Could the delegation comment on reports of refugee children returning to Mali to join armed groups and fight?

Some reports indicated that almost 37 percent of children aged five to 14 were involved in child labour, including in worst forms of labour, in agriculture and informal sector.  Girls were mostly involved in domestic work, and boys run the risk of exploitation in Koranic schools.  Mauritania had signed an agreement on domestic work with Saudi Arabia in June 2018 - how it defined the minimum age for domestic work?

Progress was very slow in the reform of the juvenile justice system and the introduction of alternatives to detention; there were only two juvenile courts, with very few attorneys educated on the matter.  How were children in conflict with the law protected?

The delegation was asked to update the Committee on the status of the proposed increase in the age of recruitment to 18 and to explain the obstacles to Mauritania ratifying the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict.  Why was the initial report on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography late?

Responses by the Delegation
 
In response to questions raised on the framework law on gender-based violence, which aimed to provide holistic protection of women and girls, the delegation explained that it had been drafted with the input of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and United Nations Children’s Fund.  The draft had been approved by the Cabinet and sent to Parliament to adoption.  
 
On child marriage, a delegate said that 16 percent of the girls were married under the age of 18.  An awareness campaign had been organized to fight against this phenomenon, and a national action plan adopted, which focused on awareness raising and advocacy.

Mauritania had acceded to the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict and the Optional on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography in 2012.  A national preventive mechanism for torture had been established in 2015, and an independent children’s complaint mechanism existed within the National Commission on Human Rights.  The National Council for Children was an advisory body placed with the Office of the Prime Minister, while the Directorate for Children was responsible for the design and implementation of all children’s rights policies.

The rights of persons with disabilities were a declared priority in Mauritania, said the delegation.  In that vein, the country had ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol, and had adopted a national action plan on the rights of persons with disabilities, which aimed in particular to ensure accessibility and access to sports and recreation.  A central Directorate for Persons with Disabilities had been set up, as was a multi-sectoral council to promote and protect the rights of persons with disabilities, while cash transfer programme aimed to provide financial help to children with disabilities and their families.  According to the latest available data, there were 3.53 million Mauritanians with disabilities.

There was a free care for children with disabilities and funding for hospital stays.  Schools were not segregated thus children with disabilities attended the nearest mainstream school; special schools were reserved only for children with severe disabilities.  By 2020, all schools in the country would have to be accessible to people with disabilities, the delegation said.
 
In order to improve the quality of children’s health services, measures were being improve the equipment in health centres and train the staff; several medical colleges had been opened throughout the country.  To improve access to education and reduce the hidden costs, a programme adopted in 2017 aimed to build 102 schools and 58 colleges, refurbish 58 schools, and distribute over one million textbooks.  A programme of priority education zones had been implemented for school drop-outs.

The right to a civil status was guaranteed, explained the delegation, noting that the figure of 56 percent of unregistered children was in stark contrast with the official figures.  There were 231 registration centres throughout the country which aimed to register all the population; by the beginning of 2018, some 3.3 million Mauritanians had been registered.  A Commission had been created composed of ministerial representatives to investigate the 50,000 people who claimed that they had not been allowed to register.  Birth certificate was required for the issuance of an identity card, and parents whose children had not been registered could not have their passports issued.  The Government was determined to register all its citizens.

The delegation provided statistics on gender-based violence, noting that in 2017, the authorities had registered 255 cases or complains of rape, attempted rape and sexual aggression; 116 had been registered so far in 2018.  Of those, 208 cases had been prosecuted in 2017 and 129 had ended in a sentence; in 2018, the prosecution was pursued in 150 cases, of which 35 had ended with a sentence.  The data, the delegation said, were an evidence of a strong criminal policy that would not stand idly in the face of gender-based violence.

There was, the delegation continued, an effective court activity in the fight against slavery under the 2015 Anti-Slavery Act, which provided for a criminal response to all forms of slavery.  Trials were being held at all levels of the jurisdiction and sentences ranging from one to 20 years in prison and fines ranging from 250,000 to one million ouguiya were being imposed.  A circular had been sent to all jurisdictions to emphasize the importance of prioritizing slavery-related matters.

Sharia was the only source of law and its principles were applied in all Mauritanian legislation, stressed a delegate.  Any guardian who married a child without fully taking into account the child’s best interests would be responsible for a marriage of interest and could be sued in court, risking a sentence of five to ten years of imprisonment and a 250,000 ouguiya fine.

A child could file a complaint of a rights violation to any State institution, and especially to the National Commission of Human Rights.  Adults are also required to report any violation of the rights of the child.  The opinion of the child was necessary to put it under the kafala regime, explained the delegation, stressing that the child and legal guardians were consulted at each stage of this process.

The Child Protection Ordinance had set the criminal liability at the age of seven; a child aged seven to 15 in conflict with the law enjoyed protective measures, with a view to their rehabilitation.  A prison sentence was only used in rare occasions, whereby a judge would place the child in a semi-open detention centres where they would be able to maintain the links with their families and visit them during the weekend.  A new juvenile detention centre for children aged 15 to 18 would soon be operational, and would promote the children’s rehabilitation including through professional and vocational education.

Abortion was a criminal offense unless there was proven medical necessity, the delegation explained.

Force-feeding used to be a cultural practice among Mauritanian women, which was being combatted also through school canteens, and exclusive breast-feeding was being promoted.  All possible tools were used to change behaviour, said the delegation, stressing that it would take time to change culture and customs, and raise awareness of the community.

The Government was working since the adoption of the Convention to popularize its provisions in order to make them known to the population, and awareness programs on children’s rights were being held in Koranic schools on a pilot basis.

Malnutrition of children under the age of five was a priority, as was addressing force-feeding, a cultural practice once common among Mauritanian women, through specific programmes in school canteens, and the promotion of exclusive breast-feeding.

In their follow-up questions, Committee Experts asked whether the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes was incorporated in the national legislation, and about steps taken to address barriers to birth registration, including in remote areas and among the nomads.  On the situation of rural women, the delegation was asked about training and information they received on HIV/AIDS and vaccination of children, and the measures in place to increase their access to health, in particular sexual and reproductive health services, given that rural women represented the majority of victims of female genital mutilation.  What was being done to support families of children with disabilities, including those with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities and children on the autism spectrum?  On children’s complaint mechanism, how many complaints had been made, how could girls and women enslaved by their employers lodge a complaint?

Responding, the delegation said that the health sector budget was 20 billion ouguiya in 2017 and 21 billion in 2018.  A women’s health programme included sexual and reproductive health services, and addressed the issues of female genital mutilation and obstetric fistula; a national implementation plan for the rural areas was in place.

The delegation reassured the Committee that the recent economic growth and reduced trade deficit, coupled with the decline of poverty and the annual improvement of ten per cent in the business climate, were all clear signs that there was no longer fear of debt default.

The ratified international treaties superseded national laws, but only if their provisions were in line with the Constitution and the principles of the Sharia law, the delegation explained.

In order to facilitate birth and civil registration in nomadic and rural areas, the Civil Registration Agency had set up a network of registration centres throughout the country and it ensured that either its own staff, or the staff from the local courts, went to the distant areas in order to address the registration needs of their population.  There were no fines imposed for late birth, marriage, or death registration.

There should be a juvenile judge in every governorate, a delegate explained, adding that every large court had the juvenile investigative magistrates.  The situation in juvenile detention institutions was monitored though unannounced visits from the human rights institutions.  Separate prisons for adult and juvenile populations existed, as well as prisons with separate wards and entrances for men and women.  There were specialized police units for children in conflict with the law, as well as female police officers for female offenders.

Domestic work was regulated by the Labour Code which paid special attention preventing and sanctioning abuse in domestic work, including by demanding written employment contracts also for female workers working abroad.  Additionally, protection of domestic workers from abuse was addressed by bilateral agreements.

The six public schools had been closed due to safety reasons and the developing infrastructural projects.  No children under the age of 18 were involved in or recruited for military activities.

Children victims of family violence as well as children living or working in the street could be placed in specialized shelters found in several major cities, to which they would be assigned on a case-by-case basis, and considering their individual needs.  In shelters, they would receive a range of services, including protection, social, health and mental health services.  Child protection and social work experts would develop a plan for each child, on the basis of which they would receive educational and professional support, in cooperation with their families.  Children without family support were placed in a care institution or a foster family – placement decision was guided by the principle of the best interest of the child.

Concluding Remarks 

CEPHAS LUMINA, Coordinator of the Task Force on the report of Mauritania, concluded by stressing that a ratification of any international instrument required the State party to ensure that its laws, policies and practices were brought in line with international standards it had accepted.  The Rapporteur hoped that Mauritania would use the Committee’s concluding observations to enhance the interventions to realize the rights of all children in the country.

KHADIJETOU MBARECK FALL, Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism of Mauritania, in her concluding remarks, thanked the Committee for the opportunity on behalf of everyone involved in the protection of the children’s rights.

RENATE WINTER, Committee Chairperson, expressed hope that the Committee was helpful and that its advice and recommendations would be taken into account.

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