The senatorial elections earlier this month in Mauritania ended with nine women being elected to hold seats. Combined with the 17 women elected to the national assembly last November, 26 women now sit in Mauritania's Parliament.
Since the overthrow of the Mauritanian regime in 2005, a military junta led by Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall has worked to re-establish democratic rule on a two-year timeline. As a result of this process, dates were set for municipal and legislative elections, and presidential elections, which will be held next month.
The transitional government in Mauritania sought to address demands by political activists and NGOs to impose a quota requiring 20% representation of women on candidate lists. Mauritanian legislators introduced two new mechanisms: the first requires that parity exists between male and female representatives wherever possible; the second provides political parties with financial incentive to exceed the quotas already imposed by law.
As a result, male/female parity must be achieved on candidate lists for municipal and regional elections where there are two seats at stake and an absolute majority is required for victory. These constituencies will have a representative of each gender. In districts that have three or more seats, and where the voting is proportional, the law requires candidates to alternate between male and female on the list to avoid an unfair advantage.
Until recently, Mauritanian women were confined to the periphery in politics. Prior to the 2005 coup, the government included just ten women -- the highest representation since independence. However, the low number of women was not just a result of prejudice; also to blame are widespread problems of poverty and illiteracy.
The new quotas may have secured a victory for women that would have been otherwise impossible. However, despite these measures, just one woman won election by a direct, open majority ballot; and not one political party, in spite of the incentives, took the perceived risk of putting female candidates forward for this type of vote. As a result, most of the women candidates elected won in the proportional and indirect votes.
Several civil society groups are very active in supporting and promoting the women’s political involvement in Mauritania -- organising more meetings and training seminars with the aim of breaking taboos and raising women's awareness of their new roles in society and in politics.
Steps taken by the transitional leadership have already yielded significant results, and are receiving positive feedback from organisations like the National Democratic Institute and the German Technical Co-operation Agency.
"The complement of men and women is Muslim in essence. It must be made to bear fruit; it must be upheld, increased and expanded so that Mauritanian society can flourish together for the good of the nation," Sana Abbas, a former candidate for the national assembly, said.
For many women, the participation of their gender in politics will come about by raising people’s awareness. "It is not enough to say to women that they have rights … we must still help them to reclaim their rights. If the administration, civil society, individual women and religious groups are made aware, then changing mindsets regarding women is most certainly a possibility," Salma Mint Akhyarhoum, a sociologist specialising in gender equality, said.