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ZIMBABWE: Reform of birth registration law urged
July 23, 2004

HARARE - Child rights campaigners are looking to amend current Zimbabwean legislation to make birth registration easier, as nearly a third of all children do not possess a birth certificate, restricting their access to public services.

Zimbabwe has ratified the Convention of the African Child, which emphases a child's right to a name and nationality, and makes registration immediately after birth compulsory. But neither the Zimbabwean constitution nor the Births and Deaths Registration (BDR) Act expressly state that a child has the right to be registered.

An estimated 50 percent of Zimbabwean orphans and 95 percent of children living in institutions do not have birth certificates. Without proof of identity, rights activists say, children find it hard to access health and education services, and are prone to child labour, sexual abuse and early marriage.

The Child Protection Society (CPS) wants to reduce the number of unregistered children from the current 30 percent to five percent of total births by the end of 2005. They are pushing for amendments to the BDR Act, arguing that the legislation currently makes for an over-centralised registration system, with overly stringent requirements causing vulnerable children to remain unregistered.

"We were working on the assumption of 30 percent unregistered children, but this figure may be even higher because of the continuing AIDS crisis and the impact of the land redistribution programme, which displaced many children," CPS advocacy manager, Busi Bhebhe, told IRIN.

Following a number of consultative workshops with interested parties in 2003, the CPS presented the Ministry of Home Affairs with a series of proposed amendments to the act. The ministry "was taking the proposals seriously", said Bhebhe, and had promised to facilitate a meeting with the CPS and the Office of the Registrar General before presenting the proposals to parliament.

Among the reforms urged by the CPS is automatic registration at birth. Currently, the mother receives a birth record for later registration of her child, but the card is issued only if she produces her identity card and her maternity fees are fully paid up.

"Collection of maternity fees for the health ministry is a separate issue, and should not be allowed to interfere with the home ministry's mandate of facilitating birth registration," said Bhebhe.

The CPS has proposed a special arrangement allowing children aged over 15 to facilitate their own registration "so that in the future, there will be fewer adults without identity cards and fewer mums unable to register their children immediately after birth," noted Bhebhe.

Under the BDR act, children "born out of wedlock" are registered in the mother's name, unless the father is physically present at registration and has agreed to the inclusion of his name on the birth certificate. Included in the definititon of children born out of wedlock are those from unregistered customary law marriages, where lobola or bride price was paid for the mother but there is no documentation to prove it.

According to Bhebhe, 80 percent of Zimbabweans are married this way, and many of their children remain unregistered because the provision makes for paternity wrangles. Rural women, in particular, are not keen to register children under their own names as, culturally, the children belong to the father.

President Robert Mugabe, in a speech opening parliament last week, said the harmonisation of marriage laws - putting customary union on a par with other legally recognised marriages - would be one of the priorities of his government. In the interim, however, the CPS has proposed that the BDR Act be amended to allow maintenance orders to be used as proof of paternity, and for fathers to be allowed to register their children born "out of wedlock".

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