Adama, or the story of a fight for identity in Africa

Story of Adama Coulibaly, Principal Adviser Sahel, West and Central Africa Regional Office

Anne Fouchard
Adama Coulibaly
UNICEF WCARO
10 August 2021

"I have three birthdays a year," explains Adama Coulibaly with a mischievous laugh, "on the presumed date of my birth, 24th July, on the date of the supplementary judgement for children born 'around', the 1st  January, and finally on 31th December, the date on which I was enrolled in an administrative census.”

While this incongruity makes him smile, Adama recounts how the absence of a simple piece of paper, a birth certificate, nearly ruined his life and made him miss opportunities. He remembers his distress when he realized that he would not be able to take the baccalaureate exams because he did not have proof of his identity and age. He remembers the kindness of the school's director who did everything he could to ensure that this brilliant child did not lose his chances. Thanks to him, Adama was able to take and pass his exams.

But he also remembers that he was unable to benefit from the scholarship he had won to study in the United States. And if, after all, he can look back on a brilliant academic and professional career - he became UNICEF's Senior Adviser for the Sahel in the Regional Office - he knows that it came at the cost of relentless struggle.

The sum of all risks

"Every time I travel abroad, I have to explain to the border police that I am not three different people, but one person with three different dates of birth.”

An unequal and largely absurd struggle, a handicap at the starting line in life that still affects half of Africa's children who are deprived, like him, of their fundamental right to a legal identity. 96 million children face a host of risks: the risk of not being able to go to school, to study, to marry officially, to open a bank account, to participate in elections, the risk of being exposed to work and early marriage, to violence, to recruitment into armed gangs... A child without an identity is a child who does not exist in the eyes of society.

"I was born in the 1970s in Mali. It was a time of drought and famine, and my parents had neither the means nor the time to register me at the civil registration point. And they probably didn't realize what I stood to lose.”

For most of the world's population, where birth registration is a matter of course, the situation of Adama and half of Africa's children is a plunge into the unknown. This may explain why civil registration programmes are among the least funded actions by the international community: a child without an identity is an invisible problem... None of the events of his or her life will leave a trace in the official records of his or her country.

Progress too slow and fragile

Between Adama's birth and today, things are certainly changing. Progress has been made: just a decade ago, in some African countries, 90 per cent of children were not registered. But this progress is too slow, too fragile, to hope we can achieve the universal registration target of the 2030 SDGs, or that of the African Union (AU) Agenda in 2063.

Governments in African countries know what they are losing by depriving their children of a legal existence: how can they plan essential services such as health, education and social protection if they do not know how many people will benefit? How can you govern without knowing who you are governing?

Simple measures

Yet universal birth registration is far from being an insurmountable problem: African countries that now register more than 80% of their children have put in place simple measures that have proved successful.

In June 2020, the AU and UNICEF launched a game-changing campaign called the No Name Campaign, committing African countries to implement what works: integrating birth registration with health services, immunization services, and later with school and social welfare services; decentralizing these civil registration services so that they are as close to the people as possible; and digitizing registration for real-time and sustainable records. Three virtuous measures that can change the future on the continent.

If, and only if, we don’t let the COVID-19 pandemic jeopardize the fragile gains made. Therefore, the AU and UNICEF, in regional consultations to measure the progress of the No Name Campaign, are insisting that member states ensure that birth registration is completely free as a prerequisite to achieving universal coverage. This implies that no fees should be charged for late registration.

The effectiveness of abolishing birth registration fees has been demonstrated in countries such as Cape Verde and Congo-Brazzaville, which have the highest rates on the continent. But today, birth registration is free of charge in only 4 of the 24 countries in West and Central Africa.

Free registration as a prerequisite

However, as the Cape Verdean representative pointed out during these consultations, "as birth registration is compulsory, the Government acknowledges its responsibility to guarantee and enable its universality, which starts with free registration for all citizens, regardless of age. "

As Leila Ben Ali concluded, on behalf of the African Union Commission, "progress towards the SDGs and the 2063 Agenda will only be achieved when Governments ensure that it is free, allow interoperability with other services, and ultimately provide decentralized services that reach all newborns.”

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