A legal identity for all

In Africa, over 40% of the population are currently unable to prove their identity. This has enormous consequences for the 500 million people concerned, who are unable to access essential services such as healthcare, education and social security. The Urgence Identité Afrique Fund (Urgency Identity Africa or UIAfrica Fund), created under the auspices of the King Baudouin Foundation, aims to tackle this problem by boosting the civil registration of births.

We want to promote a culture of systematically registering births in sub-Saharan Africa among parents, local communities and the state.”

André Franck Ahoyo, UIAFRICA Fund

“Alarming figures and an enormous challenge for the future.” The situation described by Franco-Beninese consultant André Franck Ahoyo, executive director of the UIAFRICA Fund, leaves much to be desired. “Of the roughly 500 million people on the African continent who have no legal identity, 95 million are children aged 5 and under, who have not been registered at birth. UNICEF has announced that by 2030, this figure could be as high as 115 million.” And yet, the legal instruments supposed to assign the right to a legal identity for everyone exist, through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. “Moreover, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 states that between now and 2030, everyone must be guaranteed a legal identity, thanks to registration at birth.”

In order to try to reverse the current trend, the lawyers Abdoulaye Harissou (Cameroon), co-author of the work Les Enfants fantômes, and Amadou Moustapha Ndiaye (Senegal) contacted the King Baudouin Foundation to create a fund. “The Foundation opened its doors to us and listened carefully to what we had to say. We were struck by the ease of setting up the fund and the Foundation’s European dimension because it is specifically at this level that we wish to raise awareness and conduct advocacy. The international network of the King Baudouin Foundation can also make a difference in the development of a philanthropic approach.” And so it was that, at the beginning of 2020, the UIAFRICA Fund saw the light of day, with registration of births at the civil registry as the key focus of its work.

Multiple causes

The lack of birth registration lies at the heart of the problem. In sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than one in every two births is registered. Several reasons can explain this situation. “Today, the African continent still has high levels of illiteracy. Many parents do not know what procedures to follow to register a child’s birth.” Nomadism, big geographical distances between the place of birth and the nearest organization where a birth can be registered, the weight of traditions, as well as the birth of children outside marriage, pose other obstacles. “Nor have public policies favoured birth registration. In some countries one has to pay to register a birth. For some poor families with low purchasing power, registering a birth can be an important financial burden that they just cannot afford”, adds André Franck Ahoyo. “Shortcomings in infrastructure can be another explanation since many civil registration centres lack appropriate registers, are poorly equipped or totally without computerized facilities and have poorly trained staff.”

Moreover, when they do exist, identity documents are also the first to be destroyed or stolen. “Many countries – in the Horn of Africa (such as Somalia, Eritrea and South Sudan), but also in the Sahara-Sahel region (including Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mali), the Central African Republic and Libya – are affected by on-going armed conflict and terrorism. When assailants attack a town, one of the first things they destroy is the heritage and archives containing the civil registries. Similarly for migrants, people’s identity papers are the first documents that are taken in order to prevent or complicate migrants’ identification and their being returned home.”

“A person’s legal identity is the basis for everything”

For these “phantom children” the consequences can be dramatic. Many find themselves in situations of poverty and exclusion. “As far as education is concerned, children without any legal identity have no access to secondary education. As a result, they leave school early and become part of the unofficial sector and the underground economy.” To get a job in the formal economy, one must be able to prove one’s identity, as is the case too for social welfare and healthcare. “Children who have not been declared at birth very rarely benefit from free healthcare or vaccination campaigns. How can you vaccinate a child if you don’t know how old he or she is?” André Franck Ahoyo says indignantly. This situation also has its consequences for citizenship, whether it is to be eligible to vote or to stand for election, to acquire or inherit property, one still needs to prove one’s identity. It is impossible too for adults to have access to financial services if they have no official documents. “This partially explains the low use of banking services: in Africa, only 20% of the population have access to banking services such as, for example, holding a bank account.”

Faced with such a major challenge, the UIAFRICA Fund has its work cut out for it, as Abdoulaye Harissou, President of the Fund’s Management Committee explains. “Given that we cannot tackle the whole problem, we have identified four priorities: to promote the registration of births at state and local authority levels in sub-Saharan Africa; to make this undertaking an incentive; to develop and support local initiatives that provide solutions and, finally, to create a platform that gives visibility to all of the actors and activities on the ground.” Two pilot countries have been identified for the project, namely Senegal and Togo. “The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to reorient our strategy and explore new activities that make greater use of digital options. The idea here is to favour the emergence of new practices that can be supported and shared on a wider scale.” This will provide a glimmer of hope for all of those “phantom children”.



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