NOUAKCHOTT (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - 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.
A law on gender-based violence that would be tougher on rape and provide more support to victims was almost adopted two years ago, but it lost support in parliament as misinformation spread.
Now women’s rights groups are campaigning all over again, as new deputies elected in September are set to review the bill.
Khady was taken to hospital in February where she gave birth before being returned to jail with a premature baby girl. She was released on special grounds a month later after persistent efforts by lawyers working for Ely’s organization.
“Night and day were the same,” she said shakily, recalling how she kept to herself in prison and avoided the other inmates.
Zina is officially punishable by flogging or stoning, but Mauritania does not carry out corporal punishments in practice.
Yet without a good lawyer, women convicted of zina can idle in jail indefinitely, said Zeinabou Taleb Moussa, head of the Mauritanian Association for the Health of the Mother and Child.
The risk of incarceration is so high for adult rape victims that Moussa sometimes discourages them from going to the police.
“If we know that a woman is going to be imprisoned, we tell her, ‘Unfortunately, the law does not protect you.’,” she said.
“If you report it, he (the rapist) will be imprisoned, but you’ll be imprisoned too.”
Men are also charged with sex outside of marriage - not rape - in many of these cases, but they often serve shorter jail terms than women, according to several local rights groups.
A 2005 child protection law made it less likely for girls to be prosecuted for zina, and there has been some progress in the treatment of rape victims in recent years, Moussa said.
“Before, every woman who went before a judge and said she was raped was accused,” she said. “Now there are investigations, there are testimonies, there is attention given to the woman.”
Yet the law remains stacked against adult victims, and even minors are still occasionally imprisoned, activists say.
On a recent visit to Ely’s office, a 16-year-old in a pink headscarf tried to soothe her baby. Having been raped by her boss, she was convicted of zina but placed under probation - a victory for the association’s lawyers because she escaped jail.
Sitting nearby, head bowed, a 15-year-old girl was less fortunate. Having flirted with the man who then raped her, she was judged to have consented, and jailed for a month.
Saleck Jeireb, an official in the ministry of social affairs, children and family, said the government had a plan to tackle gender-based violence, which includes training health workers and providing psychosocial support for victims.
“The response is not at the scale that we want, but we’ve started,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Ely and Moussa helped to draft a law on gender-based violence in 2012 which clearly defined rape and increased support services for victims, among other measures.
The executive branch and senate approved the bill in 2016, but debate broke out when it was sent to parliament.
The bill was pulled after rumors spread that it was against Islam, backed by Westerners, and condoned homosexuality.
“There was a debate, unfortunately founded on errors,” said Jeireb of the ministry of social affairs.
With the installment of a new parliament, the draft law will be resubmitted, he said.
Moussa sounded cautiously optimistic there would be allies in the new government, but she did not expect them to move fast.
“They promised they would study it, but we don’t know when,” said Ely.
For countless young rape victims in Mauritania, the legal system remains a source of bewilderment. Some could barely articulate their confusion at having been raped then punished.
“I only told the truth,” Khady said.
Reporting by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Emma Batha. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org