Mauritania is often held up as a beacon when it comes to the proportion of women elected to political office - a 20 percent minimum quota was instituted in 2006 - but experts told IRIN once in power many women are still sidelined from taking important political decisions.
“While the quota is a major step forward, changing the situation of Mauritanian women is still a slow process because their colleagues discourage them from leading on issues,” Aminettou Mint Ely, head of the local non-governmental organisation (NGO) Association of Women (AFCF), told IRIN.
“As a result, many of these women cannot fight to overturn discriminatory laws in the country… such as those barring working women from claiming a pension, or paying elected women less than men for the same posts,” she said.
In the 2007 municipal council elections, women were voted into 37 percent of seats - or 1,120 out of 3,688 - and 18 percent of parliamentarians are women, but women make up just three out of 27 ministers.
Even this marks progress - while Mauritania ranks 111 out of 128 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2007 global gender gap index, when it comes to political empowerment its ranking rises to 74 partly because of its efforts to boost women’s presence in government.
Mahnaz Afkhami, president of the Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP), thinks quotas are a good starting point. “Of the 13 countries globally with the highest proportion of women in government, all have implemented quotas,” she told IRIN.
“But they are not the end-goal… Alongside them, we also need to break down cultural stigmas and train these women to become good leaders.”
Kadiata Malick Diallo, deputy in the National Assembly who has been involved in Mauritanian political life for 30 years, said that while the president may endorse the quota, not all male members of parliament are on board.
By way of example, she told IRIN: “People often overlook women when they choose members to form permanent standing committees.”
She continued: “Some [men still] think the quota is anti-democratic and promotes mediocrity. But mediocrity is not the exclusive preserve of women.”
Creating strong leaders
But for Hildegard Schoerry, good governance adviser with German development agency GTZ, the problem also comes down to a skills shortage. “In 2007 most elected women in municipal councils were illiterate… as were many of the men.”
These women were not used to speaking out or making decisions publicly.
To address this, GTZ worked with the Secretariat of State for Women’s Affairs (SECF), the WLP and local NGOs AFCF and Forum for Human Rights Organisations (FONADH) in the southern regions of Hodh el Gharbi and Guidimakha to build up women councillors’ leadership skills.
They trained councillors in how to lobby for change, how to lead a political decision-making process, how government works, and the basic national and international laws concerning women.
As a result, “councillors’ behaviour is starting to shift and they are starting to show determination in fighting for their cause,” said Schoerry.
In both districts where the training has taken place, the 20 percent quota has been surpassed.
The next goal, for Diallo, is to see the quota extended beyond elected office to other influential arenas such as the civil service and the judiciary.
And when these quotas are reached, she hopes the goalposts will shift again. “The 20 percent quota is a milestone, but our ultimate goal is equality,” she told IRIN.
To change things on this scale they will need the endorsement of powerful men across the political and religious spectrum, said Schoerry. They have made some headway on that front - Muslim leaders have already officially endorsed the quota by declaring the Koran does not forbid women from taking political office.
But for WLP’s Afkhami, before they focus on expanding the numbers, they need to make sure the leaders that are in place are up to the job. The next step is to look beyond the numbers, to address the quality of leadership these women adopt.
“We need to train these women to be democratic, principle-based communicative leaders,” she told IRIN, “in order to build what we want - an inclusive democratic process in Mauritania.”