Kicking goals for a name and nationality for every child

Ensuring every child in Timor-Leste attains their right to a birth certificate, and their identity

UNICEF Timor-Leste
UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Helin
06 March 2019

Enshrined in the Convention of the Rights of the Child, which celebrates its 30th year this year, a name and a nationality provide the foundations for a child’s active participation in society. Despite Timor-Leste ratifying this convention shortly after the restoration of independence in 2003, the proportion of unregistered children remains high. Only sixty percent of the country’s newest generation (aged under 5) have had their birth registered, and less than 30 per cent have copy of their birth certificate. But this is all about to change. By bringing birth registration to the forefront, “Kick for Identity” - a Junior Football Tournament in Manatuto municipality, is highlighting the importance of a child’s official visibility to the state in order to ensure their rights. 

Manatuto Municipality: Groups of children huddle under shady trees, waiting in anticipation next to a dusty seaside football pitch. The rainbow of uniforms provides each of the 17 teams with a sense of unity; of identity. It’s for this reason, too, that they have gathered today – the opportunity to ensure that every child born in Timor-Leste can claim their Timorese national identity.

A group of cheerleaders warm up the crowd gathered in the stands as Shakira plays over the sound system, reminding the children that “today’s your day, believe it”. The drumline then starts and with a rat-a-tat-tat the marching band parades a lap of the field before making way for the teams to be introduced.  

Pride is palpable as each team’s name is announced to a roar of applause from the crowd. The players, aged between 10 and 14, march past the stands and arrange themselves by team on the field. Their flags waving staunchly out front in the swirls of wind and dust.  

UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Helin
Teams march to the Manatutu Stadium, line up proudly with their flag. This is a big event in the town!

“With our identity, we, children can become the strength of the nation,” 10 years old Domingos da Masena, a representative from the players, declares confidently. “Viva Timor-Leste’s children!” 

Conversely, when a child’s birth hasn’t been registered with the state, it leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and at risk of being locked out of society. Informal adoption, sexual relations with a minor and child marriage are all harder to prosecute when there is no record of a child’s date of birth. 

“Birth registration is important because this is how children get visible. Be visible to the state” calls Valérie Taton, Representative, UNICEF Timor-Leste. 

“Now when [the government] asks when a child was born, parents can reply more than ‘around the same time we planted our rice crop,” says the Manatuto Municipality Administrator Fernando de Sousa to the crowd.

UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Helin
“With our identity, we, children can become the strength of the nation,” 10 years old Domingos da Masena giving interview to the national television during the event.

Reaching the unregistered

With the support of the Government of Japan, UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Justice to both ensure all new babies are registered upon birth and register those who have missed out. “Before leaving hospital, the name of the parents and child can be documented legally straight away” says Administrator de Sousa.  

In Timor-Lese, birth registration is managed by the National Directorate of Civil Registration and Notary which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice. From Manatuto himself, the Minister for Justice, Manuel Carceres da Costa, is passionate about increasing registration rates in both is home town and across the country. 

UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Helin
The young players are full of excitement. This tournament will stay in their memories.

“Last year I came [to Manatuto] to launch the birth registration office at the municipality health service” the Minister told the crowd. “This year with the support of God and UNICEF, we’ll be doing mobile registration – in and out of villages – across the country to register all Timorese children, so they can have their identity. Today’s launch event is to make sure children can get their identity.”

Bringing the issue of birth registration closer to the community is at the heart of the collaboration between UNICEF and the Ministry of Justice. With Timor-Leste’s birth registration rate among the lowest in the region, interactive community engagement is essential to the approach. In Manatuto municipality, just over 20 per cent of children have access to their birth certificate – the sixth lowest in the county. 

With rain clouds looming, the tournament ballet is drawn, and two teams kick off the first game in the series, which will run through March.

Health facilities play a key role  

In the stands Francisca Carvalho Bonaparte, 32, is cheering on the local teams with her youngest daughter, aged 4. Unlike 70 per cent of children in Timor-Leste, both her daughters have copies of their birth certificate at home. Her oldest, aged 7, was born in Timor-Leste’s national hospital in the capital Dili and was registered straight after birth. “We got the certificate after only a week, it was really quick!” exclaims Francisca.   

UNICEF Timor-Leste/2019/Helin
Running for the ball, eager to score!

“My second daughter was registered after she was born. We applied for the certificate at the Notary office and it came in 2 to 3 weeks”. While the process took a little longer for her second daughter, who was born in Manatuto, it was worth it for Francisca. “It helps them to know their identity, that they’re part of this nation. Without it, the state can’t recognise them.” she continues. 

It’s a message that Mercicio Juvinal dos Reis Akara, Secretary of State for Social Communication, is eager to share across the nation. “Going forward, we have to talk to each other about this, talk to parents, when we know a child is born, we have to remind each other to make sure they’re registered. It’s really important”. 

For Akara the media, who also attended the event, has a key role to play in this – “I ask for the media to continue broadcasting these kinds of events across the country, so that people in Suai, people in Manufahi, people all around the country can also hear these messages”.

The match ends as the first drops of rain start to fall, and a star player emerges from the winning team. At just 11, Ivo Santos Silva is half the height of his teammates yet plays with twice the gusto. He practices football every day, yet when asked what he wants to do when he grows up football is not the goal – “I want to join the defence force” he replies shyly.