Khady knew the man who waited outside her house one evening, followed her down a dark street and put his hand over her mouth. She had refused his offer of marriage several months before.
The assault that followed is a blur. The 26-year-old fell pregnant, and five months later she was jailed for breaking Mauritania’s law banning sex outside of marriage.
“They said I was guilty. I don’t know why,” she said at a center for victims of rape in the capital, Nouakchott.
“I thought if I told the police what happened, they would put him in prison,” Khady, whose name has been changed for her protection, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Sex outside wedlock is by far the most common cause of incarceration for women in Mauritania, accounting for more than 40 percent of female prisoners, according to a survey by the Mauritanian Association for the Health of the Mother and Child.
About 50 women were locked up for “zina” or sex outside marriage in the main women’s prison in Nouakchott between July 2016 and June 2018, the rights group said.
Yet most are victims of rape, according to activists who hope the nation’s new parliament will breathe life into an abandoned bill that could improve justice for Mauritanian women.
Mauritania, a vast desert country in northwest Africa, is an Islamic Republic with a penal code partly based on sharia law.
Adultery, sex between single people and rape are all crimes, yet the law does not define the latter or the notion of consent.
This means rape convictions for men are rare while prosecuting female victims of sexual violence for zina is common, according to campaigners who say rape victims must generally prove the use of force in order to be found innocent.
“Once a woman becomes an adult, in most cases, they say she consented,” said Aminetou Mint Ely of the Association of Women Heads of Family, which runs support centers for rape victims.
“The laws are open, and they facilitate the interpretation of rape as zina,” added Ely, the president of the rights group.
Mauritania’s justice ministry did not respond to a request for comment.Click to read more.