No child born in Central African Republic since March 2013 has a birth certificate. That’s about 30,000 children living in the capital city alone without any legal trace that they exist. Why should we care about this little piece of paper? Because without it, a child has no protection. They can’t prove their age, can’t prove who their family is, and can’t prove their nationality. Let me tell you Abigail’s story.
Abigail was born in the midst of a coup d’état. It was March 2013 when a coalition of rebel groups took over Central African Republic’s government and went on a rampage – destroying health centres, schools, and government offices.
Every day, there was shooting and pillaging in the capital city, Bangui. Abigail’s mother couldn’t risk a trip to the mayor’s office to register her daughter’s birth. And anyway – the birth registry was soon destroyed by the rebel groups.
Nine months later, the conflict came to Abigail’s quartier. On December 5, Abigail’s family fled to the closest site for internally displaced people – a church-run training centre with high walls and men from the neighbourhood guarding the gate. Along with cooking pots and clothes, her family carefully packed up the two birth certificates of Abigail’s siblings. Her mother, a vegetable seller, and her father, a security guard, had carefully saved the US $3 they needed to pay for the birth certificates.
Packing the birth certificates was an act of hope. Abigail’s parents knew that these slips of paper were essential for their eldest children’s future – once peace returned. With these certificates, the children could enroll in school, they could prove their age so that they were not recruited into to armed forces; they could get a passport to travel to other countries.
Let’s compare Abigail to her six-year-old brother Gaston.
Gaston can enroll in school. Without a birth certificate, Abigail couldn’t. (Even if the school does not ask for the birth certificate during enrolment, Abigail will not be allowed to sit for the primary school examination.)
Gaston is protected against child labour, child trafficking and illegal inter-country adoption. And Gaston’s family can easily be traced if he was separated during the conflict and repatriated if he was a refugee. Abigail doesn’t have this same protection.
Abigail’s parents knew this, but they had more pressing concerns. The family’s house had been completely destroyed. Her father couldn’t work anymore. How would they buy food?
It was a relief this week when a volunteer came to their tent in the displacement site and offered to register Abigail. UNICEF and the CAR Government were holding a campaign to register children born between March 2013 and March 2014 – the babies born during a conflict who didn’t have a chance to exist legally.
More than 30,000 babies will be registered during the 10-day campaign in the capital city Bangui and the two neighbouring towns of Begoua and Bimbo
It’s a start. But there are thousands of other babies throughout Central African Republic who don’t have a birth certificate. UNICEF can’t stop until we’ve reached every last one of them.
Madeleine Logan is a communications specialist at UNICEF in Central African Republic. She will be reporting from CAR for the next six months.