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Simangile Ndebele and her primary school-going foster child. Pic credit: Timothy Manyange

No name, no rights: The impact of civil registration gaps in Zimbabwe

Tsholotsho – Debra Masuku (real name concealed) had no name, no identity, and no rights. For two decades, she was invisible to the State and denied basic social services.

She was one millions of children in Zimbabwe who were never registered at birth and grew up without a birth certificate. She was also one of the lucky ones who finally got one recently, thanks to an emergency mobile registration exercise by the Civil Registry Department in collaboration with Unicef.

Simangile Ndebele, a Community Childcare Worker (CCW) located in Tsholothso, says since she started working as a child community worker in 2010, she had seen varying cases but Masuku’s case had struck her the most.

“The most severe situation I encountered included a girl who was born in 2003 but didn’t get her birth certificate until last year. This slowed down her development,” Ndebele says.

Percentage completeness of birth registration in Zimbabwe was reported at 48.7 % in 2019, according to the World Bank collection of development indicators.

There are notable disparities in birth registration between rural (40%) and urban (69%) areas. Unregistered children are almost inevitably the children of the poor and excluded across both rural and urban parts of the country.

Although in Zimbabwe a child without a birth certificate can be enrolled in primary school, they cannot write grade seven examinations, and without this qualification cannot proceed to secondary school or get an ID card. Without an ID card, a person cannot vote, open a bank account, or apply for a job. Without a proof of citizenship, a person cannot travel or own property.

The COVID-19 pandemic made the situation worse, disrupting civil registration services and leaving many newborns unregistered.

Director Social Development in the Ministry of Social Welfare, Tawanda Zimhunga, said for most communities, accessing birth registration centers is a major challenge as some people are incapacitated.

He added that an emergency fund availed by Sweden with the technical support of UNICEF would among other key child protection matters also cater towards assisting incapacitated communities to get to registration centres.

An emergency mobile registration blitz conducted last year, had seen the collaboration of social workers and community childcare workers in identifying vulnerable persons, Zimhunga said, adding that where necessary sociological reports were made for abandoned children and persons with no traceable relatives which enabled them to get birth certificates.

The Swedish Embassy to Zimbabwe and UNICEF signed a financing agreement for US$5.8 million to support child protection programs.

UNICEF supports the government and works with partners to strengthen the civil registration systems. This includes increasing the number of service points where children can be registered, developing or updating birth registration policies and fostering innovation in registration technology.

On a whole, there is great a need to strengthen the civil registration system in the country, increase the number of service points, update the policies and laws, and use innovative technology to make registration easier and faster.

Only then can Zimbabwe ensure that every child and every person has a name, an identity, and a right to belong, to ultimately ensure that no one is left behind.