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publication June 1, 2021

Mauritania Economic Update: Why it is Essential to Enable Women to Participate Fully in Economic Activity?

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  • June 2021

From left to right: Mariem Cheyakh (20), Aziza Mohamed Saleck (20), and Binta Ba (25) study at the new campus of the University of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Nouakchott, which opened in 2014. Mariem and Binta are enrolled in biology and physiology courses, while Aziza is studying mathematics and physics. All three want to become teachers when they graduate, teaching science to young Mauritanians.

Photo: Arne Hoel/World Bank


  • The fourth Economic Update for Mauritania, released today by the World Bank, highlights recent economic trends and looks at specific development issues in the country.
  • Although the COVID-19 crisis caused the first economic contraction in Mauritania since 2008, donor support and improved terms of trade have eased external and fiscal pressures.
  • The report, which devotes a special chapter to gender inequality, notes that Mauritania could increase its wealth by 19% if women had greater opportunity to participate fully in economic activity.

NOUAKCHOTT, June 1, 2021 – As in most West and Central African countries, the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted economic activity in Mauritania, causing growth to fall from 5.9% in 2019 to -1.5% in 2020. This contraction is mainly due to poor performance in the fishery and service sectors, which were severely affected by the pandemic containment measures. COVID-19 has had a particularly severe impact on the well-being of households, three quarters of which have reported a drop in their employment income. This trend has been most evident in the cities of Nouakchott and Nouadhibou, where most service sector employees are concentrated.

The report, A Better Future: Accelerating Economic Recovery by Unlocking Women’s Potential (e), notes that, while economic activity has slowed due to the pandemic, donor support and improved terms of trade have eased pressures on the current account and the fiscal balance. As a result, the debt-to-GDP ratio has remained stable, although the risk of debt distress remains high. In the medium term, growth is expected to rebound thanks to the recovery of the non-extractive sector, coupled with increased mining output and the start of gas production in 2023. “However, the macroeconomic outlook remains vulnerable to four main risks: a prolonged impact of the pandemic, climatic hazards, possible delays in structural reforms, and regional insecurity,” notes Samer Matta, World Bank economist and lead author of the report.

Recognizing that strengthening the potential and opportunities of women and girls is a key condition for economic development, the report’s second chapter focuses on women and analyzes the main obstacles to their economic empowerment. The report finds that gender inequalities in human capital cost Mauritania 19% of its national wealth.

These disparities are present from childhood and occur in numerous spheres of life, preventing Mauritanian women from fully participating in the country’s economic activity.

Women enjoy less protection under the law than men

Although progress has been made over the past decade, women in Mauritania are still subject to discrimination in the legal realm. In 2020, the country ranked 177th in the world on the Women, Business and the Law Index. This legal discrimination occurs across a wide range of areas: in addition to unequal wages and restricted property rights, for example, women are denied access to certain jobs, do not have the legal capacity to be heads of household, and lack protection against inequalities in access to bank loans and employment.


Early marriage has many negative consequences

One third of Mauritanian girls are married and one quarter have a child before they turn 18. Child marriage, early pregnancy, and their impact on girls’ education remain the main causes of gender inequality in Mauritania. While other Sahelian countries are beginning to take legal steps to end the practice, Mauritania has made no progress in reducing child marriage. On the contrary, the report finds that the number of married minor girls has increased in comparison with the previous generation.  


Despite an improvement over the past two decades, the percentage of women in Mauritania's parliament remains relatively low compared to other comparator countries

Although Mauritanian women have electoral rights equivalent to those of men and their representation in parliament increased from 3% to 20% between 2000 and 2018, their voices and representation remain limited as a result of discriminatory practices. Social norms, which tend to confine girls and women to the roles of wife, mother, and housewife, are often at the root of the disadvantages they face.


The report proposes a series of reforms to reduce gender inequality and address the obstacles confronting women. First, legal barriers must be removed to improve women's socio-economic opportunities. This includes, for example, introducing the principle of "equal pay for work of equal value" into the law and guaranteeing equal rights of access and financial support for divorce, thus allowing for the valuation of non-monetary contributions or unpaid work. Second, child marriage and early pregnancy must be addressed, for example by ensuring that girls stay in school until the end of secondary education. This could be one of the most important medium- to long-term investments the country can make to reduce the cost of gender inequality. Third, women's voice, autonomy, and representation must be strengthened through institutional strengthening and gender equality initiatives.

“By taking the necessary steps to enable women to develop their job skills and to work, the government will succeed in increasing the productivity of all citizens and spurring long-term economic development,” says Paula Tavares, senior gender specialist at the World Bank and co-author of the report.