Constitution provides for equality before the law for all citizens, regardless of race, national origin, sex, or social status, and prohibits racial or ethnic propaganda. In practice the Government often favors individuals on the basis of ethnic and tribal affiliation, social status, and political ties. Societal discrimination against women, strongly rooted in traditional society, is endemic, although the situation is improving.
There are no legal restrictions on the education of girls and women. Girls constituted 48.8 percent of all children enrolled in school in 1998. Some 84 percent of school-age girls attended elementary school in 1998-99, up from 44.8 percent in 1990 (compared with 88 percent for boys, up from 58.3 percent). At the secondary level, female students constituted 37.4 percent of those enrolled. Despite the increases, enrollment in eastern Mauritania, the Brakna, and along the Senegal River remained at a lower level. The Government introduced a special countrywide program in 1995-96 to boost female enrollment at the elementary level. Women made up 17 percent of the university's 1998-99 enrollment, compared with 9 percent in 1990. Women also constituted 30.5 percent of students enrolled in technical schools, compared with 2 percent in 1990. The literacy rate for women is 36 percent compared with 50 percent for men.
The Government seeks to open new employment opportunities for women in areas that traditionally were filled by men, such as health care, communications, police, and customs services. Women became more involved in the fishing industry and established several women's fishing cooperatives. For the first time, women were hired by the army to serve as police inspectors and customs officials.
The law provides that men and women receive equal pay for equal work. While not universally applied in practice, the two largest employers, the civil service and the state mining company, respect this law. In the modern wage sector, women also receive generous family benefits, including 3 months of maternity leave.
Women still face some legal discrimination. For example the testimony of two women is necessary to equal that of one man and the value placed on women's lives in court-awarded indemnities is only half the amount awarded for a man's death. However, women do not face legal discrimination in areas not specifically addressed by Shari' a. The Secretariat for Women's Affairs works with many NGO's and cooperatives to improve the status of women. A booklet published late in 1996 advises women of their rights. On October 6, the Council of Ministers ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Government entered reservations over requirements of CEDAW that contradict the Shari' a, such as in inheritance cases in which women receive half the portion of a man.