Fatimata M’Baye is a human rights lawyer, co-founder of the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights (l’Association mauritanienne des droits de l’Homme, AMDH) and vice-president of the NGO International Federation for Human Rights (Fedération internationale des droits de l’homme, FIDH).
M’Baye was born in 1957. She was initially not allowed to get an education because of her grandmother, however, her mother, who felt that her daughter was intellectually gifted, fought for her daughter to be allowed formal education. M’Baye was finally allowed to go to school when she was 11 years old, she graduated from high school at age 25. In 1985, after completing her law studies at the University of Nouakchott in Mauritania, Fatimata M’Baye became the first female lawyer in the country. M’Baye was first arrested for her activism in 1986, when she, along with her 14 year old sister, were arrested for distributing flyers protesting the arrests of Black Mauritanian Intellectuals who had written about the Mauritanian State’s racism against Blacks. She would be arrested again in 1998, along with fellow Mauritanian Human Rights activists, after a report on slavery in Mauritania was aired on French Television. After protests locally and outrage internationally from organizations like Amnesty International, M’Baye and the activists were pardoned by the Mauritanian President at the time, Ould Taya.
In 1991, she co-founded the Mauritanian Association for Human Rights (l’Association mauritanienne des droits de l’Homme, AMDH). In 1999, M’Baye became the first African to win the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award. This award, created in 1995, is given out in the City of Nuremberg, Germany.
Over her career, she has defended fellow human rights activists, women wrongfully convicted under Mauritania’s “Sharia” laws, and has been an advocate for the rights of children and the abolition of slavery in Mauritania. Although her activism has focused on conditions in Mauritania, she has also challenged police brutality against Mauritanian migrants in France.
She is a mother of three, divorced, and currently living in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
Fatimata M’Baye’s defense of Rape Victims in Mauritania
M’Baye’s work came to international attention when she was spotlighted in the 2008 documentary, Mauritania: A Question of Rape. This documentary was part of BBC’s Series Women on the Frontline. The Series, introduced by Annie Lennox and shot by all-women crews in Mauritania, Nepal, Morocco, Austria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Columbia, documents the personal stories of women’s rights activists.
The film documents the plight of women who come forward with accusations of rape and are then convicted of zina, sexual immorality, because this is a crime under “Sharia” “Islamic” Laws. Part of the problem is that within Mauritania’s Penal Code, based on a cultural interpretation not an Islamic one, a distinction which unfortunately is not made in the film, pregnancy cannot result from rape, therefore if a woman coming forward with an accusation of rape is pregnant as a result of that rape, she is accused of zina because it is believed that she could not have become pregnant without her consent. This is a truly hopeless situation. As M’Baye states in the film:
We want more than we now have, we want a law that protects us. When a woman has been a victim of rape, when she has lost her honor, when she has lost her future, and when she has no hope left to continue to live, it is the state’s responsibility to protect her.
Fatimata M’Baye and Police Brutality in France
According to a 2009 Amnesty International report on police brutality in France:
On 11 March 2008 she was arrested and held in police custody for 24 hours after protesting at what she considered to be ill-treatment by police officers of a Mauritanian migrant being forcibly expelled on the flight she was travelling on. During the period she spent in custody she states that she was subjected to degrading treatment.
On 11 March 2008 Fatimata M’Baye boarded Air France flight 765 at Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, bound for Nouakchott, Mauritania. She noticed several police officers on board but did not consider it unusual until she and the other passengers heard sounds of a man in distress from the back of the plane, who shouted “Help me! Untie me! They’re going to kill me!”. She says she saw a young man who had his arms strapped to his body with a belt, and was being forcibly restrained by border control police officers who were trying to silence him. Fatimata M’Baye and another passenger, a doctor, called on the police officers to untie him and protested that they were treating him in an inhuman and degrading manner.
The flight captain told the police officers to untie the young man as this was forbidden during flights. They refused to do so, so he ordered them to disembark. The passengers applauded this action. A few minutes later approximately 20 more police officers boarded the plane and one told Fatimata M’Baye and the doctor to disembark. Fatimata M’Baye said she would not leave the plane until she was told on what grounds she was being ordered to do so. She says the police officer told her “we have ways to make you do so”, and in response to what she perceived as a threat of physical violence, she disembarked.
Fatimata M’Baye was taken into police custody at the airport, where she was stripsearched. At around 6pm she was told that she had been arrested for “opposing a forcible expulsion” and would be held in custody for 48 hours. At 11.30pm she was taken to a detention cell in a different part of the airport. She was stripsearched again and, while naked, told to “spread her legs” so the officers could check that she was “not hiding anything”. She was deeply humiliated by this procedure which appeared entirely unnecessary as she had already been searched when she entered custody. She protested to the two police officers present and the search was finally halted.
Fatimata M’Baye remained in custody overnight and the public prosecutor was informed of her detention. However, she was released the following day at approximately 3pm and the public prosecutor did not pursue any charges against her. The doctor who had also protested about the treatment of the migrant being forcibly expelled, and had likewise been detained, was also released around the same time. He states he was never informed of the reason for his detention.
No further information is available on the fate of the young man being expelled. According to Fatimata M’Baye’s understanding, he was returned to Mauritania on the next flight.
A video interview, in French, with M’Baye about this case is available online.
Fatimata M’Baye and the Forced Fattening of Female Children in Mauritania
On Oprah Winfrey’s show about Beauty Around the World, the fact that in Mauritania a woman being fat is considered beautiful was discussed, and the fact that some women were being forced fed, particularly in rural communities was addressed. The practice of fattening young girls in preparation for marriage is called leblouh. According to M’Baye, as quoted in a 2009 Guardian article:
The fattening is done during the school holidays or in the rainy season when milk is plentiful. The girl is sent away from home without understanding why. She suffers but is told that being fat will bring her happiness. Matrons use sticks which they roll on the girl’s thighs, to break down tissue and hasten the process.”
“If she vomits she must drink it. By the age of 15 she will look 30.”
M’Baye asserts in the article that the fattening process is linked with early marriages, as young girls are plumped up, so that they look more mature and therefore can marry younger. She states:
I have never managed to bring a case in defence of a force-fed child. The politicians are scared of questioning their own traditions. Rural marriages usually take place under customary law or are overseen by a marabou (a Muslim preacher). No state official gets involved, so there is no arbiter to check on the age of the bride.
Portrait of Human Rights Activist Fatimata M’Baye 1999 Amnesty International article available in German online
Mauritania: Serious Attacks on Freedom of Expression and Association 1998 Amnesty International document available online
Mauritania: A Question of Rape video available online
2008 Video Interview with M’Baye in French available online
Girls being force-fed for marriage 2009 Guardian article available online
Human Rights Issues in Mauritania
Fighting Slavery in Mauritania BBC Radio Documentary available online
Mauritania’s Campaign of Terror: State-Sponsored Repression of Black Africans 1994 Human Rights Watch Report available online
Hadijatou Mani Koraou, a Bouzou, was born into slavery in the Republic of Niger. In 1996, she was sold by her mother’s owner to a tribal chief by the name of El Hadj Souleymane Naroua, a Hausa, at the age of 12 for the equivalent of $500 US. This transaction was part of the local tradtion of Wahiya in which a young girl is sold to man to be his servant and concubine. In the local custom, the girl is known as Sadaka. Mani worked as a slave for about 9 years, performing domestic and agricultural labour. She was first raped by Naroua around the age of 13 and continued to be subject to rape, resulting in the birth of four children, but only two survived.
I was beaten so many times I would run to my family. Then after a day or two I would be brought back. At the time I didn’t know what to do but since I learned that slavery has been abolished I told myself that I will no longer be a slave.
In May of 2004, the government of Niger passed a law criminalizing slavery. Timidria, an anti-slavery and human rights organization founded in Niger’s capital city of Niamey in 1991 by activist Iguilas Weila. Timidria means “solidarity or fraternity” in Tamahaq, the language of the Tuareg Berbers of Niger. It was Timidria’s efforts, with the support of Anti-Slavery International, which led to the government of Niger criminalizing slavery (a practice that the government long denied even existed in their country). After the law as passed, Timidria went to work educating slaves across Niger about their rights as the activists knew that many slaves would have no idea that they were free because most slaves are illiterate and don’t have access to radio or television.
On August 18, 2005, most likely in response to the government of Niger’s moves to enforce the ban on slavery, Naroua freed Mani, granting her a “liberation certificate”; however he did not permit her to leave. Mani did not want to stay with her former master so on the pretext of visiting her sick mother she escaped his household. Mani went to the civil and customary tribunal of Konni to gain her full rights and ensure that she could legally leave Naroua and go live somewhere esle. The tribunal ruled in Mani’s favour. Mani went to live in her paternal home and married Ladan Rabo.
However, Naroua insisted that Mani was his wife. Naroua filed a complaint against Mani at the civil and customary tribunal of Konni. At first his application was denied, as the tribunal ruled that Naroua had never married Mani according to religious rules. However, this decision was overturned and eventually led to Mani’s imprisonment as is explained below in the case summary:
On appeal, the Court of First Instance of Konni set aside the decision of the tribunal. Instead, it was held that under customary law a female slave automatically became a master’s wife after he liberated her, so the Applicant had to remain in Mr. Naroua’s household. The Applicant appealed the decision of the Court of the First Instance of Konni to the Judicial Chamber of the Supreme Court of Niamey, requesting “the application of law against slavery and slavery-like practices.” While the case was pending, the Applicant returned to her own father’s home and, with the help of her brother, married another man of her choice.
The Supreme Court of Niamey quashed the decision of the Court of the First Instance on procedural grounds without addressing the issue of slavery. The case was then sent back to the Court of the First Instance for review. On April 6, 2007, the Court of First Instance of Konni ruled that the Applicant be divorced from Mr. Naroua on the condition that she wait three months before marrying another man. Challenging the ruling, Mr. Naroua filed an appeal with the Final Court of Appeal. Aware of the Applicant’s marriage, Mr. Naroua filed a criminal complaint against her with the Court of the First Instance of Konni. The Court convicted the Applicant, her new husband and her brother of bigamy, issued an arrest warrant, and sentenced each of them to six months in prison and a fine of 50,000 francs. The Applicant and her brother were detained.
While in detention, the Applicant appealed the conviction to the Criminal Division of the Final Court of Appeal. The Final Court of Appeal entered an interim order in July 2007, releasing the Applicant and her brother from prison pending the final decision on the divorce issue by the Divorce Judge of the same Court.
Mani came to international attend when she, with the support of Anti-Slavery International and Interights, brought forward the first test case to ECOWAS on African government’s responsiblity to protect their citizens from enslavement, charging that the government of Niger violated her rights by not protecting her from being sold into slavery. As is explained in the case summary:
On December 14, 2007, the Applicant lodged a complaint with the Court of Justice of The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) under Articles 9.4 and 10.d of its Supplementary Protocol A/SP.1/02/05 of 19 January 2005 amended Protocol A/P.1/7/91 of 6 July 1991 relating to the Court of Justice. She sought a declaration that Niger had violated Articles 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 18(3) of the African Charter of Human and People’s Rights for failing to take appropriate measures in abolishing slavery and discrimination against women based on their social origin. She also sought fair reparation for the damage she suffered during the nine years of slavery with Mr. Naroua. The Defendant, Niger, objected to the complaint on two grounds: one, at the time when the Complaint was filed, the Applicant was no longer a slave, leaving her without standing on the issue of slavery, and two, the Complaint should not survive, as all domestic remedies had not been exhausted, specifically the Applicant had never challenged her status as a slave or “fifth wife” in the domestic courts.
One of the most important reasons why Mani took this step was to ensure the freedom of her two children, as it has been customary in Niger for the children of slaves to automatically become the property of the slave’ s master.
In 2008, Mani won her case. The government of Niger has been ordered to play Mani $19, 750 US in compensation. This is what Mani says she will do with the money:
With the compensation I will be able to build a house, raise animals and farm land to support my family. I will also be able to send my children to school so they can have the education I was never allowed.
Immediately following the ECOWAS Court’s judgment, the government of Niger committed to respecting the judgment, which it acknowledged was binding on it. On 17 March 2009, the government paid the compensation due to Hadijatou in full. As a result Hadijatou has rebuilt her modest home, which she shares with her mother and her young child, and bought several cows and goats that enable her to be economically self sufficient. She has invested some of the monetary award in savings for her family for the future. The criminal case against her for bigamy, which had been pending throughout the ECOWAS proceedings, has been lifted and she is now a free woman living as part of a family and a community.
Hadijatou has been honoured for her courage in various contexts, including being awarded the US State Department’s ‘International Woman of Courage award 2009′. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said of Hadijatou and her case:
“Hadijatou is such an inspiring person. Enslaved by being sold at a very young age, she never gave up on herself or on her deep reservoir of human dignity. When she finally escaped from slavery, she didn’t forget those who were still enslaved. For her inspiring courage in successfully challenging an entrenched system of caste-based slavery, and securing a legal precedent that will help countless others seek freedom and justice, we honour and salute her.”
As a result of the case, Hadijatou was named in Time Magazine as one of the top 100 most influential people in 2009.
Hadijatou Mani Koraou vs The Republic of Niger (case summary available online)
Brief Case Summary available from the African Human Rights Case Law Database available online
Profile of Hadijatou Mani Korau in Time Magazine available online
Niger ex-slave wins landmark case (2008 BBC News article available online)
Niger begins enforcement of ban on slavery (2005 BBC News article available online)
Niger Anti-Slave Activist Charged (2005 BBC News article available online)
L’esclavagisme dans l’espace nigérien by Abdel Kader Gady (essay in French avaiable online)
Fighting Slavery in Niger Pays Off (afrol News article available online)
Born into Bondage: About Slavery in Niger by P. Raffaele (2005 Smithsonian Magazine article available online)
Niger: Slavery an Unbroken Chain (2005 IRIN article available online)
Gender Equality in Niger (report available online)
Anti-Slavery International’s Website