Aminetou Mint El-Moctar, the face of women's rights in Mauritania

By Isma Hassaine-Poirier, Staff Writer


Photo credit : Claire Jeannerat for

Photo credit : Claire Jeannerat for

Aminetou Mint El-Moctar is a Mauritanian women’s rights activist. She is shortlisted for the Nobel Peace prize, making her the first Mauritanian ever considered for such distinction. In the past, she received prizes in regard to her activism: the Human Rights prize of the French Republic in 2006 and a special prize from the US Department of State in 2010. She was also awarded with the French Legion of Honor in 2010.

Aminetou Mint El-Moctar is not her real name. In 1999, a certain Aminétou Mint Ely decided to found an association for promoting women’s rights. The state refused to recognize this association, this refusal being a way to make her pay for her previous political and activists stands. Instead of being discouraged, Aminétou Mint Ely changed her name and ID papers to Aminetou Mint El-Moctar and adopted a new name for her association : l’Association de Femmes Chefs de Famille (AFCF) - Association of Female Heads of Households, a structure that aims to promote human rights and defend women’s and children’s rights in Mauritania.

Apart from dealing with issues such as child marriage or sexual violence, a significant part of her work is dedicated to young teenage girls working as “servants” for wealthy families. Slavery-like practices seem to continue in Mauritania and perpetuate the ancestral slave-master relationship, leading to what can be called modern slavery. According to AFCF data and studies, those girls are often being exploited and abused by their employers. In 2009, together with the Swiss NGO Terres des Hommes (Tdh), the AFCF set in motion a project to tackle the growing phenomenon of children working as domestics. A study jointly conducted by Tdh and  AFCF revealed that girls aged under 12 represented around 60% of the workforce encountered, even though by law, children in Mauritania cannot be employed in the non-agricultural sector before the age of 14. These young girls are poorly paid, over-worked and in a very worrying health condition. They do not benefit from any medical care and are extremely vulnerable to bad treatment such as physical violence and psychological and/or sexual abuse. In their 2014 annual report (downloadable here), Tdh identified 1,697 minors working as housemaids in Nouakchott and Rosso. These minors were listened to and assisted during their social and professional reintegration process.

Besides this aspect of her commitment, Aminétou Mint El-Moctar also fights the widespread impunity in the country. As she explained in an interview she gave in 2010, the justice system in some matters, like sexual abuse, is clearly dysfunctional. Indeed, the author and the victim of sexual abuse are often both punished the same way because according to the Sharia law, they are both guilty of zina (sexual intercourse outside the marriage). This greatly affects the vision of a crime and forces many victims to remain silent, by fear of unjust punishment. Mauritania ratified the CEDAW in 2001 with major reservations. Only the articles in agreement with the Sharia Law and the Mauritanian constitution were to be applied. This decision goes against the very purpose of the CEDAW as well as international law.  

In June 2014, the leader of the radical Muslim group “Ahbab Errassoul” (“Friends of the Prophet”), Mr Yadhih Ould Dahi, issued a fatwa calling for the death of Aminetou Mint El-Moctar. This fatwa was pronounced after El-Moctar to position on human rights and particularly her involvement in the Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mohamed Ould M'kheitir’s case. This 29 year-old accountant has been sentenced to death in December 2014 for apostasy, after being judged for an alleged blasphemous and outrageous piece he wrote about a cast he considers being ill-treated in the Mauritanian society. Aminetou Mint El-Moctar defended him and called for a fair trial.

“I am not scared of receiving death threats as I am convinced that the situation will change” says Aminetou Mint El-Moctar in an interview given to Terre des hommes  in February 2014. “I fight for the protection of young victimised girls and that is my job as an activist.”