Millions of World’s Children Lack Any Record of Their Births

MASAKA, UGANDA � Would a 15-year-old girl be married off by her parents in violation of the law? Would another girl, who looks even younger, get justice after an alleged statutory rape at the hands of an older man?

In their impoverished communities in Uganda, the answers hinged on the fact that one girl had a birth certificate and the other didn’t. Police foiled the planned marriage after locating paperwork that proved the first girl was not 18 as her parents claimed. The other girl could not prove she was under the age of consent; her aunt, who’s also her guardian, has struggled to press charges against the builder who seduced and impregnated her.

“The police were asking me many questions about proof of the girl’s birth date. How old she is? Where she goes to school,” said the aunt, Percy Namirembe, sitting in her tin-roofed shantytown home in Masaka near the shores of Lake Victoria in south-central Uganda. “I don’t have evidence showing the victim is not yet 18.”

As Namirembe spoke, in a room decorated with a collage of Christ and the Madonna, her niece sat beside her, her belly swollen and a vacant stare on her face.

In the developed world, birth certificates are often a bureaucratic certainty. However, across vast swaths of Africa and South Asia, tens of millions of children never get them, with potentially dire consequences in regard to education, health care, job prospects and legal rights. Young people without IDs are vulnerable to being coerced into early marriage, military service or the labor market before the legal age. In adulthood, they may struggle to assert their right to vote, inherit property or obtain a passport.

“They could end up invisible,” said Joanne Dunn, a child protection specialist with UNICEF.

With the encouragement of UNICEF and various non-governmental organizations, many of the worst-affected countries have been striving to improve their birth registration rates. In Uganda, volunteers go house to house in targeted villages, looking for unregistered children. Many babies are born at home, with grandmothers acting as midwives, so they miss out on the registration procedures that are being modernized at hospitals and health centers.

By UNICEF’s latest count, in 2013, the births of about 230 million children under age 5 – 35 percent of the world’s total – had never been recorded. Later this year, UNICEF plans to release a new report showing that the figure has dropped to below 30 percent due to progress in countries ranging from Vietnam and Nepal to Uganda, Mali and Ivory Coast.

India is the biggest success story. It accounted for 71 million of the unregistered children in UNICEF’s 2013 report – more than half of all the Indian children in that age range. Thanks to concerted nationwide efforts, UNICEF says the number of unregistered children has dropped to 23 million – about 20 percent of all children under age 5.

Uganda is a potential success story as well, though very much a work in progress. UNICEF child protection officer Augustine Wassago estimates that the country’s registration rate for children under 5 is now about 60 percent, up from 30 percent in 2011.

While obtaining a birth certificate is routine for most parents in the West, it may not be a priority for African parents who worry about keeping a newborn alive and fed. Many parents wait several years, often until their children are ready for school exams, to tackle the paperwork.

Maria Nanyonga, who raises pigs and goats in Masaka, says lack of birth registration caused her to miss out on tuition subsidies for some of the seven nieces and nephews she is raising.

“I tried my best to get the children’s certificates, but I didn’t even know where to start,” she said. “I didn’t know when they were born, and the officials needed that.”

Even now, two years after losing out on the financial aid, Nanyonga is uncertain about the children’s ages.

“I can only guess,” she said. “I think the oldest is 10 and the youngest is 5.”

Henry Segawa, a census worker in the Rakai administrative district, is among those who’ve been trained to do the registration outreach. Their efforts have been buttressed by public awareness campaigns; radio talk show hosts and priests have been encouraged to spread the word.

“When you go to a home, you explain the benefits of birth registration, and people have been responding well,” Segawa said.

On one of his forays, Segawa was on hand in a remote village as a midwife delivered a baby at a decaying health center with a leaky roof, no running water and outhouse walls smeared with excrement.

Upon hearing the newborn’s piercing bawls, Segawa strode toward the birth register to record the newborn’s details.

The baby, Ben Ssekalunga, was the ninth child in his family, said his grandmother, Mauda Byarugaba.

“I want this baby to be her last one,” she said of her daughter. “Nine children are too many.”

Birth registration plays a pivotal role in Uganda’s efforts to enforce laws setting 18 as the minimum age for marriage.

Child marriage remains widespread, due largely to parents hoping to get a dowry from their daughters’ suitors. In the rare cases where the police are alerted, investigators face an uphill task pressing charges if they cannot prove, with a birth certificate or other official document, that the girl is a minor.

But in the recent case in Rakai, police detective Deborah Atwebembeire was able to prevail in a surprise raid on a wedding party because the bride-to-be’s birth certificate proved she was 15.

“When we reached there, I heard one man say, ‘Ah, but the police have come. Let me hope the girl is not young,'” Atwebembeire recalled.

The girls’ parents claimed she was born in March 1999, which would have made her old enough to consent. Yet only months before, the girl’s parents had told birth registration officials she was born in October 2001.

The wedding was called off, and the parents spent a night in jail.

“We achieved our objective, which was to stop the wedding,” Atwebembeire said.

The girl, Asimart Nakabanda, had dropped out of school before the planned marriage. “The man is out of my mind now. I don’t want him anymore,” she said. “I want to go back to school and study.”

The birth registration campaign in Uganda dates back only about five years and there’s still uncertainty as to whether the government will invest sufficient funds to expand and sustain it.

In India, by contrast, the major progress in birth registration results from a decades-long initiative. Public health workers, midwives, teachers and village councilors in remote areas have all been empowered to report births. In areas with internet connectivity, online registration has helped boost overall coverage.

Chhitaranjan Khaitan, an official with the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, said 15 of the country’s 29 states had reported a 100 percent birth registration rate, and seven more states surpassed 90 percent. Many states have successfully linked registration to a nationwide effort to provide every Indian citizen with an identification number.

An added motivation is India’s effort to stem its skewed gender ratio, due largely to families’ preference for sons. By requiring health workers and village officials to register all births, authorities hope fewer newborn girls will be killed by their families.

Pradeep Verma, a 28-year-old car mechanic in the village of Gram Mohdi in the central state of Chhattisgarh, was thrilled to obtain his daughter’s birth certificate earlier this year.

“It was the first thing I did after my daughter was born,” Verma said. “My parents did not register my birth. It was not considered important or necessary in those days.”

Verma has had repeated problems with proving his identity, particularly in getting a government ration card that entitled him to cheap rice and sugar.

“I know how difficult it has been to get an official identity document or enroll in government welfare programs, since I have no proof of birth,” said Verma, who dropped out of school in 10th grade. “My daughter will not have to face such hassles.”

Verma’s state of Chhattisgarh was recording just 55 percent of births in 2011. Amitabha Panda, the state’s top statistician, said reasons included lack of registration centers, outdated data collection methods and wariness of extending outreach to areas where Maoist rebels held sway.

In 2013, with help from UNICEF, the state government launched a campaign using street theater, graffiti and notices distributed at markets to get the word out. Today, the state says it registers virtually every birth.

The West African nation of Mali is another success story. It’s now reporting a birth registration rate of 87 percent – one of the highest in sub-Saharan Africa – despite a long-running conflict involving Islamic extremists.

Michelle Trombley, a UNICEF child protection officer in Mali, admires the parents and local officials who persisted with registration efforts even when their communities in the north were occupied by rebels.

“They were so dedicated to having children registered, they would smuggle in the official registration books,” she said. “People were literally putting their lives at risk.”

For all of the progress, huge challenges remain for UNICEF and its partners to attain their goal of near-universal registration by 2030.

In Somalia, wracked by famine and civil war, the most recent registration rate documented by UNICEF, based on data from 2006, was 3 percent – the lowest of any nation.

In Myanmar, the overall registration rate has surpassed 70 percent, but is much lower in the western state of Rakhine, base of the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority. Human rights agencies say many thousands of Rohingya children there have no birth certificates because of discriminatory policies.

More broadly, there’s the massive problem of children without birth certificates or other identification who make up a significant portion of the millions of displaced people around the world, fleeing war, famine, persecution and poverty.

In Lebanon, tens of thousands of Syrian children have been born to refugee parents in recent years without being registered by any government. The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, has pushed Lebanese authorities to ease barriers to registration, such as requirements to present certain identity documents.

Major efforts to register refugee children also are under way in Thailand and Ethiopia.

Monika Sandvik-Nylund, a senior child protection adviser with UNHCR, said birth registration can be crucial to enabling refugee children to return to their home countries or to reunite after being separated from their parents.

There are no comprehensive statistics on the extent of such separations, but Claudia Cappa, author of the upcoming UNICEF report, says they can be heartbreaking for a parent.

“How can you claim your child if you don’t have proof he or she really existed?” she said. “Imagine how devastating this might be to a mother.”

Source: Voice of America

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Killing to Conserve? ‘Trophy’ Raises Difficult Questions

WASHINGTON � An American dentist’s killing of Cecil the lion, a collared 13-year-old lion monitored by the University of Oxford in Zimbabwe, sparked widespread outrage and condemnation of big-game hunting. But Trophy, a new documentary by filmmakers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau, offers a more complex perspective on trophy hunting as an industry that blurs the lines between big-game hunting and wildlife conservation.

Every year, Safari Club International holds the largest big-game hunt convention in the world in Las Vegas. Conservationist and adventurist Joe Hosmer describes the process: “You can just pick whatever animal you want from the menu that they offer, you see the price and book the kill.”

Prices range from $8,000 for a buffalo to $45,000 for an elephant and $350,000 for a rhino. This big-money industry helps the local communities where the hunts take place and discourages poaching, says Chris Moore, an anti-poaching campaign manager from Zimbabwe.

Moore says while poachers destroy 30,000 African elephants a year just for their tusks, trophy hunters kills 1,100 elephants annually, providing local communities with their meat and revenue. “Half of that trophy fee goes back into building a clinic or school or whatever the community decides. They have committees and a trust, which organizes where that goes.”

Filmmaker Christina Clusiau says big-game hunting caters to the rich, most of them Americans. “I couldn’t believe that it was so vast that you could buy hunts, and you can buy your insurance, and you can buy your clothing and gear, everything for the safari.”

Filmmaker Shaul Schwarz says he made Trophy because he wanted to understand the hunters and why they do what they do.

“The fact that you had to pay so much money is kind of more angering to some degree because you are saying, ‘Oh, look at these rich white people and they are going to go and take from Africa in an almost colonial way.’ You could just get angry about that and I see why, but the funny flipside is that this money hopefully will trickle down to what actually enables conservation. So,” he concludes, “to some degree, if there wasn’t a lot of money in the industry then it wouldn’t make sense.”

Trophy shows how this billion-dollar big-game industry is financing the breeding of endangered species by exploiting a small percentage of these animals for the thrill of the kill, while conserving the rest and restoring their numbers in ranches.

“That’s kind of the idea of utilizing animals in this ‘if it pays, it stays’ way. Now, is that the answer?” Schwarz asks. “I don’t know. I’m here to raise questions, but I think what we should do in this subject is be less quick to judge and scream.” He knows that he is tackling a polarizing subject, and asks audiences to keep an open mind.

But the animal rights organization PETA does not see both sides. The group’s Associate Director of Campaigns, Ashley Byrne, condemns the big-game industry.

“Selling an endangered animal’s life to raise money for conservation is like selling a child on the black market to raise money for an anti-trafficking organization. The logic is absurd! The best way to promote conservation is to protect animals’ natural habitat and to invest in eco-tourism, in non-invasive forms of tourism that do make these animals commodities but alive, not dead!” she insists.

Anti-poaching activist Chris Moore agrees that in an ideal world, the wealthy would pay just as much to go and see the animals, but he adds we don’t live in an ideal world, and the film shows that these hunters who want a trophy want their money’s worth.

Moore suggests that if trophy hunting were banned, the animals would no longer be seen as commodities to preserve, and poaching would increase.

“When you are struggling to feed your child, you look for alternative means. I think if society maintained certain levels of prosperity, I don’t think we would really see poaching.”

Tough to film

The film offers a vivid cinematic experience of wildlife in Africa, but filming was tough, says Clusiau.

“When you look at these majestic creatures from afar they are majestic. They are beautiful. You want to go up and touch them and pet them and what you don’t realize is how dangerous they actually are. So, when you are in that environment, you do feel very vulnerable. So, we were lucky to have guides and trackers to kind of act as a shield to these environments.”

Source: Voice of America

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