A longtime supporter of women’s rights in Mauritania, Aminetou Mint El-Moctar is currently focusing her efforts on confronting the barriers that deprive young women and members of vulnerable communities of university education.
The 65-year-old human-rights activist works through the Association of Women Heads of Households, which she founded in 1999, to support women’s issues in Mauritania and to renounce the various forms of discrimination against them.
She also founded the Coalition of Mauritanian Organisations for Education, which aims to eliminate discrimination against women and disadvantaged people in terms of their right to education.
In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, she recounted how her personal experience of being deprived of university education and forced into early marriage motivated her activism.
The right to education is inseparable from women’s aspirations to play a greater role in socio-economic and political life, she said.
The basic right to education opens the door to all other rights, she added. “Our homeland will not be able to achieve economic growth or political development without promoting the right of both sexes to education and raising education quality in all levels.”
Early Marriage and Activism
Aminetou Mint El-Moctar grew up in a middle-class family in the capital, Nouakchott. Her father was a merchant and her mother passed away early after her birth, so she lived with her grandmother. She started her education at a young age. At secondary school, she was forced to drop out to get married at the age of 13.
“Human-rights activism helped me rediscover myself, refined my skills, and made me more aware of the conditions of marginalised women who are forced to drop out under the pressure of outdated social traditions.”Aminetou Mint El-Moctar
At that time, El-Moctar was becoming active in political demonstrations, but her father prevented her from taking part in them by “tying her with chains,” she said.
She told Al-Fanar Media: “I rebelled against early marriage and the traditions that exclude women and make them a mere tool for the traditional and patriarchal iron fist that sets them a binding path, without regard to their personal choices.”
She added: “Human-rights activism helped me rediscover myself, refined my skills, and made me more aware of the conditions of marginalised women who are forced to drop out under the pressure of outdated social traditions.”
In her struggle, El-Moctar has won several awards and medals. In 2006, she was awarded the Human Rights Prize of the French Republic. Academics at Georgetown University, in the United States, nominated her as one of the 500 most influential people in the Islamic world. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Education of Girls in Mauritania
According to statistics, girls’ education in Mauritania faces many problems, including a high dropout rate. Some 47 percent of girls do not make the transition from primary to secondary school. Moreover, only 17 to 20 percent of university students are female.
Mauritania has made efforts to increase girls’ participation in education, but El-Moctar thinks these efforts are deficient in light of traditions that hinder many young women from joining the university. Economic deprivation is also a factor for many Mauritanians. In addition, El-Moctar says, some government policies “place restrictions on women’s access to leadership positions in all sectors.”
The women who do enrol in higher education run into additional problems, El-Moctar said. These include discriminatory educational curricula and practices, gender-based violence, government interventions in curricula and teaching methods, and a decrease in the number of teaching staff.
“I will continue my path until women get the highest levels of education as a natural right, not as an exception, and enjoy full legal equality without reservations.”Aminetou Mint El-Moctar
Other challenges that make it difficult for many girls to continue their education include high rates of child marriage and teenage pregnancy. Additional factors affect boys and girls alike, including poverty and living at a distance from schools. El-Moctar explained that children of rural families who depend on agriculture for their livelihood are unable to travel to urban areas where schools are located.
Empowering People with Disabilities
With about 18,000 volunteers, the Coalition of Mauritanian Organisations for Education is working in partnership with international organisations on several programmes to increase access to education. Its projects include efforts aimed at improving the integration of graduates into the labour market, supporting vulnerable girls’ enrolment in universities, and enabling people with disabilities to continue their education, along with designing educational programs commensurate with their capabilities and needs.
El-Moctar also criticised what she sees as discrimination against young women in government scholarships to study abroad. She said scholarships were awarded primarily to children from officials’ families.
She called on international donors to increase the number of scholarships they offer to those who wish to complete their studies abroad. Mauritania has only one public university and it is unable to accommodate all students, she said.
A Long Activism Journey
Since 1999, El-Moctar has been supervising the activities of the Association of Women Heads of Households, to support Mauritanian women in the face of discrimination and physical violence, and to encourage them to play a greater role in society and the economy.
Women in her country are “victims of traditions reflected in government policies or university admission policies,” El-Moctar said.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
However, she asserted: “I will continue my path until women get the highest levels of education as a natural right, not as an exception, and enjoy full legal equality without reservations.”