Central African Republic: Birth registration and human rights among Aka pygmy populations
Central african Republic -Marie Elise, her husband and their three children live in a clearing in the forest some ten minutes walk off the main road to the town Mbaiki in the Central African Republic. They belong to the Aka pygmy ethnic group. People of the Aka group have lived in this territory for centuries yet many are not even recognized as citizens.
It is noon and the sun is beaming. Only the colourful swarms of butterflies seem not to mind the heat. Marie Elise, her children and a dozen of their community members, sit in the shade of a cluster of palm trees. They are listening to Simone who works for the Italian NGO, COOPI. Simone is talking about child rights. “We give birth to children but that is not enough,” says Simone while displaying drawings of parents nursing their baby. “Next we have to take care of them to ensure that they grow up to become good and healthy people.”
Through illustrative drawings Simone explains how parents should bring their newborn to the town hall to register for a birth certificate, so that the child will be able to enroll at a school. The birth certificate should eventually be exchanged for a national identification card, which entitles citizens to be recognized and protected by national law. Lack of such documentation excludes people from legal protection, registering to vote, obtaining formal employment, and benefiting from social services and development schemes.
The birth certificate is the first step to legal recognition of a person’s identity. But Marie Elise, her children and most of the other community members do not hold legal identity papers. The community they live in is not even legally recognized. In theory these 160 or so adults and twice as many children do not exist.
“We want our children to go to school,” one of the women in the gathering is responding to Simone’s explanations of why a birth certificate is essential to enrolling at school. Someone interrupts, “People say that we are like animals. If our children go to school at least one of them will succeed and become something good for the future and for his people.”
Two ethnic groupings of pygmies live in the southern regions of the Central African Republic, the Aka and the BaAka. Generations of traditional prejudice against pygmies seem so ingrained that many do not even question the discrimination they face. Simone is asking the group whether they receive proper treatment when going to the hospital. “The hospital staff asks more money from us just because we are pygmies,” says an elderly woman wearing a bright red scarf on her head. “That’s not true. If you pay the right fee, they will treat you,” says Marie Elise. “They refuse to treat us. They say the hospital does not belong to us,” a third woman voices her opinion.
COOPI, the NGO employing Simone, works throughout the southern district of Lobaye. COOPI is supported by UNICEF and teaches pygmy communities about their legal rights and encourages parents to register their children. COOPI staff also train local authorities, police and military personnel on human rights and the plight of pygmies. COOPI assists pygmy communities with registering to attain legal status as a village. They also support cultural performances and help with establishing schools.
COOPI has counted some 15,000 Aka pygmies living in 310 communities throughout Lobaye. A small team and the lack of roads or the fact that many Aka communities are semi-nomadic, living and hunting in the forests for several months out of the year prevents COOPI from reaching everyone.
At the town hall in Mbaiki, the Mayor himself recognizes that pygmies face problems with social discrimination and that very few are present in the national system of registration. “But many people in this country do not have national identification papers,” says the Mayor. “For us to assist the pygmy populations it would be easier if they abandoned their practices of hunting and living in the forest and instead settled down in towns and villages near everyone else.”
Marie Elise and the other community members do not talk of abandoning their age-old lifestyle. “I want my children to be able to do the same as other children. They should go to school. We have to help each other with the registration papers,” says Marie Elise.