Conflict in Niger leaves children in limbo | Conflict

After fleeing armed groups attacking her remote village, Aichata Hassan had no idea she was facing another big challenge: proving to the authorities that her 12-year-old daughter existed.

Like countless other children in Niger, Nadia does not have a birth certificate, so when she arrived with her family in their new refuge, she could not enroll in high school.

The Sahel country is the fastest growing country in the world in terms of population, but also the poorest, according to the United Nations Human Development Index.

About half of the population of about 25 million is under 15 years of age – yet 40 percent of children are not officially registered after birth because of the cost and time required to travel to a distant government representative and complete the paperwork.

Therefore, many families fail to register newborns within 60 days, as required by law.

Lack of confirmation is usually not a problem for people who stay in their community all their lives – but it becomes a major headache when, like Hassan and her family, they are displaced.

Nadia’s sister Zeneba (9) and brother Abdoulkarim (4) are also in administrative limbo.

All three were born at home in Alzou, a small village in the western Tillaberi region, where there is no government official to register births.

Over the past five years, attacks have increased in this region, where the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger meet.

The rebels entered Alzoa on motorcycles, initially taking only a few cattle. But then they killed the village chief.

This prompted Hassan to leave on foot with his children, walking 30 km (20 mi) to the town of Sakora.

Nadia, Zeneba and Abdoulkarim were enrolled in a local school.

Students stand in the courtyard of the Sakoira school in the Tillaberi region of Niger [Olympia De Maismont/AFP]

Outdated paper culture

But when it was time to register Nadija for enrollment in the first grade of high school, the lack of a birth certificate proved to be insurmountable.

“Many children at school are in this situation,” said rural education consultant Idrissa Illiassou, who has three decades of experience.

“Youths without birth certificates lead to adults without identity documents and they will be excluded,” she said.

Identification documents are a big challenge for Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world.

“Our culture is based on paper, but it is outdated. We should use computers,” said Ibrahim Malangoni, the national director of civil status.

With the support of the international community, Niger is trying to solve the problem.

Informatization and awareness-raising operations, fairs and campaigns of non-governmental organizations are carried out.

“We want to carry out as many of these operations as possible to meet the goal of registering the entire population by 2030,” Malangoni added.

Today, 60 percent of births are registered, but this still leaves four out of every 10 children invisible to the state.

Despite this, today’s result is an “extraordinary level considering that not so long ago, in 2007, we were barely at 30 percent” of the registered, he said.

An identity card is required to enroll in school, receive a scholarship, open a bank account, vote or go through police control.

Students are standing in the courtyard of Sakoira school [Olympia De Maismont/AFP]

‘Prerequisite for everything’

“Access to civil documentation and birth certificates is a prerequisite for everyone,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), during a recent visit.

Katoumi Youssou, an onion grower in Sakoira, said she never had any papers. “We women don’t travel far and we don’t need them in the village,” she said.

But the violence on her doorstep changed everything. Military checkpoints appeared and passing through them without papers became a nightmare.

“Every time I have to pay the soldiers to let me through,” Youssou said. And this applies to going to town to sell your onions or even attend a wedding.

Like Hassan, she is now awaiting the arrival of a traveling judge to obtain the correct papers.

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