Maimouna Ousmala, 13, sobbed as she narrated her ordeal at her Baigai primary school in Mokolo Sub Division in Maroua, Far North Region of Cameroon. She has repeated class six, three times and is still unable to sit for the First School Leaving Certificate exams to go to college because she doesn’t have a birth certificate.
In Cameroon as in other parts of the world, birth certificates are required to register for the First School Leaving Certificate exams. “You need to legally exist before you can take this exam which permits you to enter secondary-school”, Maimouna’s Head Teacher, Bohoi Ganoua said.
In a bid to find out why the Far North region is among the lead zones of children without birth certificates, this reporter visited some primary schools, health units and communities in Maroua.
According to statistics from the National Civil status registration Office, BUNEC, more than 400,000 students in pre-school and primary education do not have a birth certificate. The Mokolo Sub Division, tops the list in the region with just 35 percent of registered births.
At the Government Primary School Baigai, in Mokolo, Mariamou, narrated how she has become bored of learning the same lessons for the past three years but is unable to take the final exams.
She suddenly stopped narrating her story half way saying she is angry at her parents for giving birth to her at home and not doing enough to register her birth.
“I am very worried when I see my friends in Secondary school,” she says visibly disappointed
Another pupil in Baigai, 10 year old Vandza Matakone, had a different story. He recounted how his birth certificate was among documents burnt down by Boko Haram fighters after their house was razed to ashes in his locality. He had to move with his only surviving relative, his uncle, who managed to enroll him at the Baigai primary school.
Matakone and Mariamou’s faces however lit up when the Head Teacher announced they have been identified and are among those who will soon get the precious document thanks to UNICEF’s efforts, in collaboration with the European Union and the government of Cameroon.
Worrying statistics in the region
Mariamou and Matakone’s cases are far from unique in Cameroon’s Far North region. Basic Education Officials in the region reveal there are several cases of children who have not been able to sit for exams because they do not have birth certificates.
Statistics from the Far North Regional Delegation of Basic Education show that as at February 2019, a total of 46,086 pupils in 2, 1126 schools don’t have birth certificates. In Baigai for instance, at least 43 out of 50 children who are at least ten years old, have no birth records.
Even though these children have names, their births are not registered by any relevant authority and their identity is therefore questionable, going by Christian Abouma Biloa, Mokolo’s Senior Divisional Officer. Just this year alone, close to 42, 306 students out of the 71, 520 pupils who are registered in examination classes in Mokolo Sub Division don’t have birth certificates, the SDO noted.
The situation is even worse in health facilities as very few births are delivered in a health facilities, leaving the majority, born at home and unregistered.
A visit to some of the health facilities and communities in Maroua confirmed the unsafe practice. Yakoudai Jean, the Chief of Centre at the Kodek Medical Centre in Maroua 3 said he has not recorded any births in the facility since January 2019.
However, he revealed that about five mothers have visited the Centre to declare births of their children at home. It is the same practice which operates in all health facilities visited in the region. At the Zamay Health centre, statistics indicate that between 2008 and 2017, no birth was registered.
Asked why parents don’t declare births of their children, some mothers in a Zamay community gathering, who prefer to be anonymous, lamented the cumbersome procedures they go through to get birth certificates at the level of the councils.
A mother, who simply gave her name as Ramatou, said she is tired of being asked to “come back again” just to get a “simple document”.
“I live far from where their offices are located. I don’t have much money for an ordinary birth certificate”, she quipped.
This is the case for many poor families living in remote areas in the region. They find it hard to get to offices or hospitals to register their children, according to local authorities and hospital staff. Those who finally make it after the one-month deadline are charged up a certain amount they can’t afford, they said.
For his part, Abouma Biloa, the SDO of Mokolo, cites ignorance, poverty and Boko haram insurgency as some of the main things impeding the region’s efforts in birth registration. “Many are still not aware of the importance of birth certificates, he said.
UNICEF, European Union lauded
For the past years, UNICEF in partnership with the European Union have been working to ease birth registration process in Cameroon especially in the Far North Region.
Before UNICEF’s intervention, authorities say there were only few civil status registration offices and trained officers in charge of registering births in very vast communities.
“Women had to go more than 6 miles (10km) just to attempt to register their babies,” says Oumarou Padawa, a Civil Status registrar in Zamay. The government with the support of development partners like UNICEF are now working towards shortening and simplifying the registration process.
Meanwhile, other health and government stakeholders in the region have all taken turns to appreciate UNICEF’s approach in organising training and sensitisation workshops on the importance of birth registration. They say this has greatly enabled birth registration of at least 67 percent of children in communities, whose births would never have been registered.
Most of them said UNICEF provided the government with motor bikes which enabled civil status registration authorities to access remote areas in order to identify and register new births.
One of such beneficiaries, is Madagal Edouard, a Social Worker with ADELPA in Zamay. He says with UNICEF’s financing, he and 19 other social workers have been able to sensitise internally displaced persons affected by Boko Haram on the importance of birth registrations.
He however hopes the EU-UNICEF collaboration will be sustained because there is urgent need to migrate from analogue to digital registration. .
On his part, Aminou Sanda Zoua, Inspector of Basic Education in Maroua praised the intervention of partners like UNICEF, which to him has eased birth registration process in the region. The Far North Region’s Basic Education boss opined that, the actions of partners have made many parents to be aware of the importance of registering their children at birth. He how however called for synergy among actors in the process in a bid to have more impact on the population.
“I urge all partners who wish to help in birth registration, to work with National civic service registration agency, so all actions are well-coordinated” he said.