Bakari Ahmed displays five birth certificates with delight. He finally has the coveted documents after a long hustle. The father-of-five says his children will now be officially recognised as Kenyan citizens.
“I am so grateful. I will later come back and get my own,” he says.
It is 10am. The queue at Kikoneni Chief’s Camp is long with more than 300 people seeking civil registration services. While some are here to apply for their children’s birth certificates, most are middle-aged hoping for late registration.
A two-hour drive from the Lunga Lunga-Ramisi Road will take you to the border village of Kikoneni in Kwale County. Here a birth certificate is a luxury for only a few monied residents who can travel up to Kwale town.
NGOs in the county say there are growing concerns over the low rate of birth registration in the rural areas. They say the situation denies children fundamental rights due to the lack of official acknowledgement of their existence.
Kennedy Chege, project manager of Tulinde Tusome, an initiative by the Plan International, says the lack of registration makes the children highly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
“We realised many children and adults in Kilifi and Kwale counties do not appear in any records. This has posed a challenge in our fight for child protection and education,” he says.
Mr Chege adds that registration is interlinked with the realisation of the other rights of a child.
“In case a child without a birth certificate is abused it is difficult to try and follow up. Some of the cases have been thrown out of court, just because you cannot produce evidence to prove the child is a minor,” he says.
Mr Chege says a number of the residents still encounter a hurdle while applying for identification cards (IDs).
“They do not have a certificate to prove their date and place of birth or who their parents are. It becomes difficult to get an identity card,” he says.
While children face the risk of being deprived of the right to education, healthcare, legal rights or coerced into early marriage, adults may have to struggle to assert their right to vote, inherit property or even travel.
But despite the growing need for the prerequisite document, the problem still shows no sign of dissipating.
“People do not value the advantage of getting a birth certificate. They would rather do something else with the money instead of spending to get one,” adds Mr Chege.
According to Plan International, more than 44 per cent of the population in Kwale County is still unrecorded.
“Currently, the statistics for birth registration in Kwale stand at 56 per cent registered persons. The numbers are also low in Kilifi County with only 68 per cent of births being in records,” says Mr Chege.
Kwale County is estimated to have a total population of about 649,931 while Kilifi has more than 1,109,735 persons.
“Most unregistered births are due to the distance to and from the registrar offices in Kwale,” says Kikoneni chief Omari Tsunusi.
“It is quite far. If they go once, twice and miss they give up.”
He says birth certification is not seen as a fundamental right and, accordingly, is not given high priority by residents, especially the uneducated.
The villagers here do not see the benefits of their own citizenship he says let alone the benefits a birth certificate would confer on their children.
“Some were not aware that they need to have a birth certificate. Registration has been a challenging issue here,” said Mr Tsunusi.
The chief, in some cases, has been forced to draft a letter to the relevant authorities where his village men were denied access to some government services due to identification faults.
“We used to write a letter identifying the person as a member of my village and request them to be assisted. You will find one parent has an identity card while another one doesn’t have,” he said.
Where the parents have separated or died he says it is the children who have suffered due to lack of documentation.
Mr Tsunusi hopes for a solution in the weekly public campaigns on civil registration he conducts in the area.
Ali Rashid, 45, has experienced firsthand the adverse effects of lacking a birth certificate.
His birth was not registered and had to use his school leaving certificate to apply for an ID, which he is yet to receive.
“I frequently travel to Tanzania and Uganda. I recently landed in trouble due to the lack of a birth certificate. I am happy my children will also now sit for the national examinations,” said Mr Rashid.
In groups, the parents trickle in. By noon the chief’s camp is full with even the elderly filling up the forms in search of the vital documents.
Deputy civil registrar in Kwale, Janet Onyisi, says rural areas in the coastal counties have lower registration rates as they have to contend with logistics problems to travel to the registrar of person’s offices.
“We only have two offices in the county that is one in Kwale town and Kinango. Most of the people are located very far away from the main offices. It might cost as much as Sh1,000 from here to Kwale,” she says.
The official also blames ignorance and the lack of public awareness on the importance of registration for the problem.
“They may not have the need or maybe it is just ignorance. Some may not be aware of the need to have a birth certificate,” says Ms Onyisi.
She adds that the directive by the Kenya National Examinations Council for examination candidates to present birth certificates before registration may lock out a majority of learners in the coastal counties, denying them their educational rights.
“Some may not be able to travel to Kwale so if they can’t register for an examination they drop out of school. That’s why we are raising awareness so that they can get them in time to avoid the last-minute rush and unnecessary delays,” says Ms Onyisi.
The school dropout cases are high in the region, she says, especially among the older pupils who may have been in school for long and subsequently feel no need to sit for examinations due to the red tape linked to acquiring the birth certificate.
“If someone struggles to go to school or aged 19 by the time one is in Class Eight, the lack of a birth certificate might prompt them to give up schooling,” says Ms Onyisi.
“It is also almost impossible to open a bank account, have a medical cover without a record of your birth.”
She says residents with birth notifications are already registered and all they need is to apply for the birth certificate.
According to Ms Onyisi, the process is now easier unlike in the past when bureaucracy hindered acquisition of the certificates.
“They pay Sh150 for the late registration. We will take the notifications back to the office to check our records and get the information for the certification. The late cases, which had not been registered, we will just register and issue,” she says.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates children should be registered at birth as it is a child’s first legal acknowledgement of its existence.
Kenya is among the countries that have ratified the convention and are obliged to conduct this vital registration.
Birth registration for all became mandatory in Kenya in 1971.
Civil registration officials in partnership with Plan International pitch camps in the remote coastal villages in a drive to deliver the service to the grassroots.
“We are working closely to create awareness and mobilise Kenyans to get the certificate. We hope they will attach to it the importance it deserves,” says Mr Chege.
So far, he estimates the campaign has reached 14,897 people in Kwale and 4,207 children in Kilifi County. However, he says questions revolving around birth registration disparities are not unique to Kenya.
“In the world, we have millions of children who are not registered. It is a global issue. We are also liaising with other organisations from other countries on possible solutions,” he says.