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Without documentation, who are you?

Abdul Noormohamed
By Abdul Noormohamed

Luminate's Africa Director

Posted on Tuesday, 19 October 2021 09:43

Kenya has one of the highest rates of urbanization in the world. Nearly half of the capital Nairobi’s two million residents live in one of over 60 ‘informal settlements’, where the land on which people live is technically illegally occupied. Kibera (from the original Nubian settlers’ word Kibra which means forest), located on the fringes of Nairobi, is considered one of the largest urban 'informal settlements' in Africa. (Photo by Nick Kozak/Sipa USA)/

Over half of African children are legally unregistered, thereby lacking legal documentation that excludes them from civic life. Here is a look at the journey and strategies employed to support such individuals in East Africa to gain legal documentation like national IDs and reduce barriers to their full participation in society.

Batul Juma Kisaka is a mother of four living in Nairobi, Kenya. She belongs to the country’s Nubian community, made up of about 100,000 descendants of people originally from the territory of Sudan. They came to Kenya over 100 years ago to serve in the East African Rifles, a regiment of the British colonial armed forces. Like many others in her community, Batul grew up and lived without a national ID card, a document necessary for recognition of her citizenship and essential for everyday life.

Without a national ID card, Batul could not register the birth of her children, and without birth certificates, they faced a life of difficulties getting into formal education, getting a job, opening a bank account, registering for a mobile phone number, or obtaining a driver’s licence. They could not benefit from the national health insurance or vote in local or national elections. Unable to properly ‘identify’ themselves to the authorities, they were also more vulnerable to harassment by the police.  

Despite residing in the country that their parents and their grandparents were born in, Batul and her children did not legally exist, that is until they received the paralegal support of Namati, a legal empowerment network that operates in Kenya, who helped Batul secure the paperwork she needed to go through the rigorous system of establishing her legal identity.

A fundamental human right

The right to a legal existence is the first and most basic right of every human being on the planet. It is the core of all rights, one that enables the actualisation of other rights, such as the rights to health, education, protection from abuse and exploitation. Yet, despite its crucial significance, according to UNICEF, half of all African children remain unregistered, even in this digital age.

In many instances, low birth registration could be a result of poor government programmes or the remoteness of communities from registration centres.

In some instances, like that of Kenya’s Nubian community, it is the outcome of long, arduous, and complex administrative procedures set up by the government to vet citizens from minority communities, especially those from the country’s border and coastal regions. These administrative hurdles are further compounded by the high rates of illiteracy and unemployment prevalent in these communities, which are themselves the result of lack of access to services, creating a cycle of marginalisation, disempowerment and poverty, generation after generation.

What can be done to help

At Luminate, we seek to defend the rights of those who have been disempowered or marginalised so that they are able to meaningfully participate in civic life. It is on this basis that we work with partners such as Namati, whose work focuses on removing barriers to civic participation, especially for those who are most underserved.

Far too many people in Africa have been, and continue to be, systematically excluded from participating in society because of their lack of documentation, or because of their socio-economic status, citizenship status, or a combination of these factors that together create significant barriers to their full participation in society, politics, governance, and the economy.  

Through our support for organisations like Namati – which works directly with communities, through training, supporting, and partnering with local paralegals – we have been able to assist undocumented citizens like Batul in obtaining the basic documents needed to establish their legal identity. To date, the paralegals Namati partners with have supported over 10,000 people to get identification documents in Kenya, including birth certificates, national IDs, and passports.

According to UNICEF, half of all African children –  some 96 million Africans – are unregistered, and 60% of African children have no birth certificate. The largest number of unregistered African children, around 38 million, live in Eastern Africa, which means training communities on birth registration and creating structures for local paralegals to help individuals with registration is critical to our future.

Bottom line

Societies where a significant proportion of the population exists without legal identity are grossly imbalanced. At Luminate, we are committed to playing our part in removing the systematic barriers that prevent marginalised communities from participating in civic and political life. Our aim is to achieve just and fair societies and to learn from current and future partners about how we can support their most impactful work.

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