NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (WOMENSENEWS)–In a dark room in Nouakchott’s Maternite Sebkha clinic, Mahjouba Mint Cheikh lies listlessly under a heavy blanket, a tube of blood sloping down from a suspended bag to pierce her forearm.
Cheikh, who’s never been to school and can’t say her age, came to the Mauritanian capital from the countryside eight months ago in hopes of finding a job. She has yet to land one, but she can lay claim–once she’s well enough to sit up–to a brand-new son.
In another room, Marian Guey and Penda Sickh, who sit side by side on a rickety cot, plastic flip-flops dangling over the dusty gray floor, take turns holding the day-old daughter of their cousin, who’s also down the hall getting a much-needed transfusion. Guey and Sickh, themselves mothers of six and five, respectively, say they’re hopeful their cousin will eventually be able to walk out the door with her new girl.
Too often, says Hindou Mint Ainina, editor in chief of Nouakchott’s independent weekly Le Calame, that doesn’t turn out to be the case. “Two women die in childbirth every day in this town,” she says with quiet rage. “Minimum. Every day.”
The main problem, says Ainina, who in the paper she co-founded 14 years ago steadily addresses the shortcomings of the country’s health care and education systems, is the lack of family planning. “The men don’t want to use birth control and the women aren’t aware that it’s necessary.”
Nor, says Ainina, is any effort made to educate mothers about the dangers of giving birth in quick succession. “Nobody looks after these women.”
Asked how their husbands would respond if they requested they use condoms, Guey and Sickh explode into hearty laughter.
Dearth of Doctors
The United Nations Development Program reports that Mauritania, located above Senegal on the western coast of Africa and with a population of just over 3 million, has on average 11 doctors for every 100,000 people; the United States has 256.
Clinics and hospitals regularly run out of such basics as water and blood and, thanks to the poor diets that result from endemic poverty, anemia is widespread, making fatal hemorrhaging in childbirth a common occurrence. “It’s natural when a woman dies,” says Sickh, who recently lost an 18-year-old sister and her infant to a traumatic delivery, “because it happens so often.”
From the time she began pursuing journalism in 1990 as a sideline to her gig as high-school history and geography teacher, Ainina has brought uncomfortable truths to her readers.
“She’s always had a very strong personality,” says Moussa Ould Hamed, a co-founder of Le Calame and the current director of the country’s information ministry. “She believes very strongly in her own ideas, which is rare among women here, and she believes she has a role to play in the evolution of Mauritanian society.”
It was because of such determined convictions that Ainina’s original venture into publishing–a small paper she started with three male friends in 1990–proved so short-lived.
Her financers, she says, had business and other interests that she and her colleagues “couldn’t defend while still conserving our free voice.”
The Fighting Quill
Le Calame–or, The Quill–is a different matter: It is owned entirely by its editors and funded solely through subscriptions. “For us it was much more than a business,” says Ainina, “it was a fight.”
In a country that since independence in 1960 and until recently has been ruled autocratically and, with the exception of a brief liberalizing in the early 1990s, with a tight lid on public information, journalism has always been a tough business.
Whether reporting on issues of particular concern to women, such as maternal mortality, or on her country’s various refugee crises or its recurrent floods and famines, Ainina has sought to prod authorities into accepting that people be allowed to say things that might not please them.
Today the paper she’s headed since 1996–which publishes 5,000 copies a week, half of them in French and half in Arabic–has a staff of about 30. Ainina, however, is the lone female. Though women are increasingly visible in Mauritania’s state-run television and radio stations, their numbers remain negligible in the realm of print.
A soft-spoken but formidable 40-something who, like the other women in this 99-percent Muslim country, dresses in the long flowing abaya and head scarf, Ainina attributes the fact that she’s never been physically assaulted for her outspokenness to the protection afforded by a society where “everybody knows everybody.”
Le Calame, on the other hand, regularly makes enemies in high places: It has been censored 38 times and was forced to shut down entirely for three months in both 1996 and 1999.
It is only since 2005, when a democratically inclined military junta overthrew the longtime government, that the editors have been relieved of weekly trips to the Ministry of the Interior for the required pre-publication screenings.
A Freer Environment
Ainina is encouraged by the freer environment but still has serious concerns about the paucity of women in journalism, and the status of Mauritanian women in general.
Women here have made some gains. Last year, the government began requiring political parties to reserve 20 percent of positions for women, and three of the nation’s 31 ministers are women. But marriage and divorce still don’t require a woman’s consent, polygamy is allowed, and the testimony of two women is necessary to equal that of one man.
Meanwhile, Ainina doubts government reports that say school enrollment is evenly divided between boys and girls. “I don’t believe at all in these figures they put forward. I know that girls are behind in schooling, I know that they’re behind in employment and I know that the education they get is one that prepares them to stay in the family.”
Her own son, she says, recently came home from school and asked her why she went off to work every day. “Women must be in the house,” he told her. “It’s the papa who leaves.”
In seeking to reconcile what she sees as the duality between the appearance of freedom and the actual absence of participation, she has recently taken to the airwaves.
Ainina helped launched Radio Citoyenne, a series of programs broadcast daily in the Hassaniya, Soninke, Wolof and Pulaar languages that are aimed at enhancing civic education among the country’s less-educated populations.
The one-hour segments address problems that affect Mauritanians’ daily lives, whether it be water shortages, health care, human rights or education. “We look at issues in relation to the responsibilities of the citizens,” says Ainina, and then encourage listeners to participate and to demand, for instance, “a school that meets their needs, or a health care center that meets their needs.”
While the shows aren’t targeted specifically at women, she hopes that they will encourage women to play a larger role in the decisions being made in their communities. Still, Ainina sees true equality for women and participation in high-level decision-making as being a ways off.
“It’s not just driving a car or wearing a miniskirt that makes one a liberated woman,” she says.
Jocelyn Craugh Zuckerman, the deputy editor of Gourmet, writes about women’s and environmental issues.
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