Conflict in Niger leaves children in limbo
Forty percent of Nigerien children are not officially registered with the government after their birth due to the cost, time and travel required to do paperwork.
After fleeing armed groups attacking her remote village, Aichata Hassan had no idea that another mighty challenge lay ahead: proving to the authorities that her 12-year-old daughter existed.
Like countless other children in Niger, Nadia has no birth certificate, so when she arrived with the family in their new haven, she could not enrol in secondary school.
The Sahel state is the fastest-growing country in the world in terms of population, as well as its poorest, according to the United Nations Human Development Index.
Around half the population of around 25 million is aged under 15 – yet 40 percent of children are not officially registered after their birth due to the cost and time required to travel to a remote government representative and do the paperwork.
Hence, many families fail to register newborns within 60 days, as the law requires.
The lack of a certificate isn’t usually a problem for people who remain in their community all their lives – but it becomes a giant headache when, like Hassan and her family, they are displaced.
Nadia’s sister, Zeneba, nine, and brother Abdoulkarim, four, are also in administrative limbo.
All three were born at home in Alzou, a small village in the western region of Tillaberi, where there is no government official to record births.
Over the last five years, attacks have surged in this region, where the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger converge.
The rebels rode into Alzou on motorbikes, at first taking only a few cattle. But then they killed the village chief.
That prompted Hassan to leave on foot with her children, walking 30km (20 miles) to reach the town of Sakoira.
Nadia, Zeneba and Abdoulkarim were enrolled in the local school.
Outdated paper culture
But when it came to signing up Nadia for the exam to enter the first year of secondary school, the lack of a birth certificate proved insurmountable.
“Many of the children at the school are in this position,” said rural teaching adviser Idrissa Illiassou, who has three decades of experience.
“Youngsters without birth certificates leads to adults without identity papers, and they will be excluded,” she said.
ID papers are a massive challenge for Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries.
“Our culture is based on paper, but it’s out of date. We should use computers,” said Ibrahim Malangoni, national director for civic status.
With support from the international community, Niger is trying to solve the problem.
Computerisation and awareness operations, fairs, and campaigns by nongovernmental organisations are all being rolled out.
“We want to carry out as many of these operations as possible to meet the target of having the whole population registered by about 2030,” Malangoni added.
Today 60 percent of births are registered, but this still leaves four out of every 10 children invisible to the state.
Even so, today’s score is “a remarkable level given that not so long ago, in 2007, we were barely on 30 percent” of registration, he said.
An identity card is required to enrol in a school, obtain a grant, open a bank account, vote or go through a police checkpoint.
‘A precondition for everything’
“Access to civil documentation and a birth certificate is a precondition for everything,” Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), said during a recent visit.
Katoumi Youssou, an onion grower in Sakoira, said she has never had any papers. “We women, we don’t travel far and in the village we don’t need them,” she said.
But violence on her doorstep changed everything. Army checkpoints have sprung up and passing them without papers has become a nightmare.
“Every time I have to pay the soldiers to let me through,” Youssou said. And this applies to going into town to sell her onions or even to attend a marriage.
Like Hassan, she is now awaiting the arrival of a travelling judge to obtain the correct papers.