January 3, 2017
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Effias Savhuka shields his eyes with calloused, work-worn hands and gazes at his children. They’re playing at home, outside. On a school day.
“It is not easy to watch your child sit around and do nothing because of circumstances that I, as a parent, have found myself in,” says the 42-year-old father of five.
The children, who range in age from 16 months to 15 years, don’t have the identity documents required to register at school.
Savhuka says he’s been trying to obtain identity documents for the children since he came to Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, in early 2016. He says he visited the Registrar General’s Department in September but was turned away because he didn’t have the proper documents to register their births.
He was told to return to Mount Darwin, the place where his oldest child was born, to get her birth certificate, but that’s a 158-kilometer (98-mile) trip he can’t afford. The family came to Harare so Savhuka could find work amid the country’s severe economic crisis.
He was also told that he needs to bring a water or electric bill, to show proof of residency.
“But where I stay, I do not have access to running water, neither do I have electricity,” he says.
Without identity documents, Savhuka’s children are destined for poverty.
Kudzai Mazvariwofa, GPJ Zimbabwe
In rural schools, children are often allowed to sit in on classes even if they don’t have a birth certificate. But they’re not allowed to take their first national exams, administered in grade seven, when many children are about 11 years old, without proper identification.
Children who don’t take those exams don’t continue on in school.
As many as half of all rural children don’t take national exams because they lack the proper documents, experts say. There are complex requirements, as well as fees, to get birth certificates, making it a difficult or even impossible process for parents like Savhuka, who has a birth certificate but isn’t highly educated. Parents say they don’t understand the bureaucratic processes, thus their children lose access to education and related opportunities, including sports activities.
It’s a crime to fail to register a child, but that’s a law that is difficult to enforce.
“We need to raise awareness on the importance of a child to have a birth certificate, to have an identity,” says Sandra Muengwa, a programs coordinator at Justice for Children Trust, a nonprofit organization that advocates for children’s rights, among other issues. “[We need to] raise awareness that it is indeed a criminal offense not to register a child.”
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Very few people realize that it’s illegal to not register a baby, she says.
Justice for Children Trust dealt with 718 cases of children without birth certificates in 2015. In September 2016, more than 70 cases were reported from Harare alone.
Childline Zimbabwe, another nonprofit that does child protective work, received 724 cases by the fall of 2016. Two other organizations in the country deal with cases of children who don’t have identity documents.
Often, Childline Zimbabwe becomes aware of unregistered children when they suffer abuse, says Bruce Mashingaidze, a training and outreach officer for the group.
The government does not publish estimates about the total number of children who lack registration documents.
There are myriad reasons why children aren’t registered within the stipulated six-week time frame after their birth.
Some children are born at home, in which case a witness above the age of 18 needs to provide a written statement, Muengwa says.
In other cases, hospitals or clinics withhold birth records because the parents can’t pay the fees, she says, adding that it’s illegal for those hospitals and clinics to do so.
Justice for Children Trust helps parents by writing letters to demand that hospitals and clinics release birth records if they’re being withheld, by accompanying parents to government offices and even by offering financial assistance, Muengwa says.
“If children are not registered, they are being denied one of their basic human rights, which is the right to an identity, the right to recognition, a name and the right to belong to a people,” she says.
Anna Vangani’s grandson was born at home, and his mother, Vangani’s daughter, never got a birth certificate or a record of birth, the document a mother receives from a hospital that provides details of a baby’s birth. The boy is now 8 years old, but Vangani can’t get documents for him.
“His mother remarried, and the new husband does not want her child,” she says. “The child’s father fled to Mozambique and has never been heard from since.”
Other families say their child’s lack of identity documents is just an accident.
Taizeza Mutemagau, a 36-year-old gardener, says the elder of his two children does not have a birth certificate.
“Nothing happened in particular; we just were late in getting him a birth certificate,” he says.
Both parents have birth certificates and national identity documents. Mutemagau says they will “get to it” soon, as the child has to sit for his grade seven exams next year.
Savhuka, the father of five, says he recently got a job as an evening security guard and is saving up money to make the trips to get his children the necessary documents to register for school.
“At least now that I am working I can try and put money together to go,” he says. “My eldest is almost 16, and she needs a national identity document soon so that at least she can try and look for work or start school.”
Kudzai Mazvariwofa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.