Women and girls in Mauritania who are raped are often unwilling to report the crime out of fear that they themselves will be jailed for breaking the east African nation's strict laws on sex outside marriage, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
In a report based on interviews with dozens of rape victims as well as NGOs and government officials, the rights group said Mauritian law as well as family and police hostility strongly discouraged them from denouncing their attackers.
The country's legal code does not define rape or address the notion of consent, HRW said, and victims who cannot prove the assault risk being charged with "zina", or sex outside marriage.
If convicted, the women face long prison terms and banishment by their family or community in Mauritania, one of the poorest countries in the world.
"Women and girls should not run the risk of jail or further stigma for reporting sexual abuse," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's director for North Africa and the Middle East.
"Mauritania should require law enforcement and public health systems to stop treating victims as suspects, support them in seeking justice and recovery, and prosecute the perpetrators," she said in a statement.
HRW added that testimony from at least five rape victims contradicted government claims that no reported rape cases had resulted in "zina" charges in recent years in the Sunni Muslim country.
It also cited the experience of Mariama, who told of being raped by a taxi driver when she was 20 but said nothing until she became pregnant a few months later.
"My father got very angry. He took me to the police station and told policemen that his daughter should be locked up because she had slept with a man," she said, according to the report.
A draft law which would define and punish rape and sexual harassment, create separate sex offence courts and allow NGOs to file cases on behalf of victims is pending in parliament, HRW said.
"While a step in the right direction, the current draft falls short in several respects, including maintaining criminal charges for consensual sexual relations outside marriage and restrictions on abortion," it said.