Child marriage tradition turns into trafficking in Mauritania

Marrying off Mauritanian girls as young as six years old to men in Gulf states is turning into a profitable trafficking enterprise as a typically rural marriage practice migrates to the city, according to urban families.

“It used to be widespread in the rural milieu, but now child marriages are more developed in urban areas as a new business,” said Sidi Mohamed Ould Jyyide, a sociologist in the capital Nouakchott. “One’s family can get rich for selling a daughter to a wealthy man. Early marriage is almost a guarantee to make a profit in no time.”

The sociologist said what used to be a cultural practice where only symbolic gifts were exchanged has turned into a business in which mostly poor urban families try to sell their daughters to wealthy families in marriage. Based on a girl’s beauty and age – the younger, the more valuable – her family can demand from US$4,000 to tens of thousands of dollars, according to Jyyide.

“Smugglers are ready to pay for all expenses of travelling and accommodation for such girls,” he added. These “smugglers” can be paid intermediaries working for men seeking child-brides, or family members of the girls.

Oumelkhary Mint Sidi Mohamed, 14, said when she was eight her father took her from her village of Adel Beghrou near Mauritania’s border with Mali to an aunt in Nouakchott, who transported her to Saudi Arabia.

Mohamed told IRIN her family’s dreams of wealth turned into her nightmare when she was raped by a cousin while waiting to be introduced to wealthy men in Saudi Arabia. “[To avoid shame], my family arranged with him to take me back home [to Mauritania] as his wife,” Mohamed told IRIN. “I found myself in his house as a servant. He beat me as soon as my family left. I reported my endless suffering to my father to end the terrible relation.”

The girl told IRIN that even after other family members intervened to help her get a divorce after one year, her father again tried to sell her in marriage in Saudi Arabia. Family friend Rabie Ould Idomou told IRIN he then stepped in and adopted Mohamed so he could be her legal guardian and keep her in Mauritania. “She must be rehabilitated [from her childhood trauma] in fairness and tranquillity,” he said.

Idomou told IRIN that after getting the father’s approval he is now trying to enrol Mohamed in school.

While the legal age of marriage in Mauritania is 18 according to the national family code, many in the predominantly Muslim country observe a different religious code. “It is accepted by the Islamic religion to marry a girl of six years old, but any physical contact has to wait for her biological maturity,” Hamden Ould Tah, general secretary of Mauritania’s Islamic Scholars Association, told IRIN.

Cultural analyst, author and professor Hussein Ould Medo said child marriage is still common in Mauritania and may be interpreted as a tool to reject what some see as the evils of modernisation. “It is a way to fight against a sweeping change or negative modern transformation.”

A government source said it is difficult to determine the rate of child marriage in Mauritania. “The real rate of such marriages is not known because most cases are not recorded as official marriages and there are no official statistics in [the Ministry for the Promotion of Women and Families],” said ministerial director Aminetou Mint Takki. She added that any violation of the family code’s legal marrying age would be punished.

But the law holds little relief for some girls in the country, said Aminetou Mint Moctar, president of the non-profit organisation Women Supporting Families. “The [family code] law is not enforced to protect the poorest or the uneducated.”

In 2006 more than 14 million girls under 18 were forced into marriage in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the UN.

Mohamed told IRIN she hopes she will be the last child-bride victim: “I hope to play and go to school as every child does. I will never forgive my father and cousin for what they have done [to me]. I pray to be the last girl to go through that pain and humiliation.”

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