BY NOMAQHAWE NDLOVU
Brian Ngwenya* was born to Zimbabwean parents in South Africa 15 years ago, but he was forced to relocate to Zimbabwe after his father died and his mother developed a mental illness.
Ngwenya said he had to come back home because his mother’s condition made difficult for her to take care of him.
He was to live under the care of his maternal grandmother in rural Kezi, Matabeleland South.
Ngwenya’s grandmother had to beg the headmaster at a local school to allow him to attend classes even though he did not have a birth certificate, one of the required documents when one enrols for formal education in the country.
“My grandson will soon be taking his Grade 7 examinations and I am worried he will face challenges as he has no birth certificate,” she said.
“Every time I go to the Registrar [General’s] offices I am told I have to bring his parents` documents and they also want $50, which is too much for me.”
Zimbabwean laws, particularly the Births and Deaths Registration Act (Chapter 5:02), require that all children be registered, but this is often easier said than done.
There are hundreds of thousands of children in Ngwenya’s predicament, with an Access to Documentation (ATD) Baseline Survey conducted by a consortium of civil society organisations in Bulawayo in 2017, revealing that an estimated 445 852 children in the three Matabeleland provinces did not have a birth certificate.
Civil society organisations from the region have petitioned the government to ensure that these unregistered children receive civil documentation.
Factors like distance from the Registrar General’s office, the attitude of the staff once there and the process for applying for documentation are some of the reasons listed as being a hindrance to access to birth certificates.
But the biggest obstacle by far is the list of documents that is needed by the Registrar General’s office for them to start processing birth certificates.
The Matabeleland region suffers the double whammy of being the epicentre of the 1980s Gukurahundi atrocities, which saw an estimated 20 000 people being killed.
The unaccounted for deaths of adults meant that their children could not get birth certificates.
In some cases, women were raped and from that abuse, they gave birth to children who could not get birth certificates because of the absence of their fathers.
In response to a public outcry and lobbying from civil society, the government has reduced the requirements needed for one to acquire a birth certificate, particularly for children born outside the country.
They reduced the fees from $50 to $2 for children above six years old, while those below can now acquire the document for free.
Failure to be registered at birth literally renders a person stateless, as they cannot participate in the country’s affairs like voting, nor can they do basic stuff like getting an identity card or passport, meaning they can neither open a bank account nor obtain a driver’s licence.
In an effort to curb statelessness, the United Nations came up with a number of protocols and conventions.
Article 15 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “every human being has a right to a nationality”.
It goes on to further state that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality”.
Statelessness is a problem that affects approximately 12 million people worldwide.
The 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which entered into force in 1975, makes it a duty of states to prevent statelessness in nationality laws and practices.
Article 1 mandates that a “state shall grant its nationality to a person born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless”.
Such nationality may be granted either at birth, by operation of law, or upon application.
The UN promulgated a convention relating to the status of stateless persons, however, Zimbabwe is not party to this treaty.
However, the issue of birth certificates does not only affect young children, or those who fail to obtain them at birth, as Cris Dube* was to find out.
His birth certificate got burnt in a fire years ago and since then, he has realised how limited his options in life are without the document.
After multiple attempts to replace his birth certificate without much success, he has since turned to a local non-governmental organisation for assistance.
“It is unfortunate that I lost my birth certificate to fire and I have been struggling to acquire a new one.
“It is difficult to get other documents like an Identity document and to register a property in your name,” he lamented.
The Women’s Institute for Leadership Development (Wild) says migration to countries like South Africa has brought many challenges for undocumented Zimbabwean migrants.
“Children raised by guardians such as grandparents have difficulty in accessing birth certificates if their parents don’t live with them,” Wild programmes manager, Permanent Ngoma, said.
“The majority of children with no birth certificates have parents who stay in South Africa, they were born there and sent back without any documentation making it difficult for their guardians to apply for (documents) as the process currently doesn’t allow that.
“To improve this, the government needs to have a system where grandparents can get birth certificates for their grandchildren without their parents.”
She pointed out that registry offices are few and far in between and most villagers do not have the resources to travel to their nearest registration centre.
“In rural areas, the registry office is far away from communities and it’s expensive for residents to commute to the registrar’s office.
“To improve this, the government could provide a mobile registry,” she said.
Habakkuk Trust director, Dumisani Nkomo implored the government to make use of technology to ensure every citizen is documented.
“With technology being so ubiquitous, the issuing of birth certificates can be automated and perhaps they can even be issued at birth,” he said.
Zimbabwe is also home to thousands of people who migrated from neighbouring countries such as Zambia and Malawi.
While some of them have regularised their stay in the country, they are still recognised as aliens.
Before the 2013 constitution became law, they could not participate in democratic processes such as voting.
In 2017, the High Court said people born in Zimbabwe and are holders of identification cards endorsed “alien” have a right to be registered to vote in general elections, provided they have proof that one of their parents was born in any of the southern African countries.
The issue of statelessness is also before the legislature, with Bulawayo Central Member of Parliament Nicola Watson raising concern at the number of children without birth certificates.
“The government needs to ensure that the best interests of the child are protected.
“As far as birth certificates are concerned, the ministry is decentralising the issuance of birth certificates given the fact that there is congestion at the provincial centres,” Home Affairs deputy minister, Mike Madiro said in response to Watson.
“The ministry is undertaking a programme to make sure that birth certificates and other services are decentralised to ensure that children have access and get what is rightfully theirs.”
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) said it had identified a lack of access to national identity documents as one of the major rights challenges facing the country.
Elasto Mugwadi, the ZHRC chairperson said the commission was launching investigations into the issue and countrywide public hearings would start in the first week of May.
Oral and written submissions would also be received until July 31.
“(The ZHRC will) enquire into and determine the root causes and factors, which prevent easy access to identity documents and to assess the impact of documentation by individuals and groups on the enjoyment of human rights, guaranteed under the constitution, national laws and relevant international and regional treaties and instruments,” he said.
Mugwadi said the commission will also review the relevant laws, institutions and policies so that it can make recommendations on how address the problems of lack of access to identity documents.