Page last updated at 13:45 GMT, Friday, 8 May 2009 14:45 UK

Reclaiming Burkina Faso's children

By Nikki Jecks
BBC World Service

Children in Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso's millions of "nameless" citizens may soon be able to proclaim their existence and reclaim their rights as part of a $5m (£3.3m) government programme to issue free birth certificates.

Five million people are expected to receive birth certificates under the programme.

Birth certificates have been available in Burkina Faso before now, but have been unaffordable for many of the country's citizens.

A birth certificate attests to the legal existence of an individual. Without one, a person cannot exercise their right to vote, and access to education, health care and other government services can be extremely difficult.

For children, the lack of a birth certificate can pose even greater dangers, making them vulnerable to trafficking and child marriage - the United Nations estimates 1.2m children are trafficked each year.

There are three million children in Burkina Faso, one in three of whom currently do not have a birth certificate.


This can place them in grave danger, and may even see them criminalised according to Nadya Kassam, the global advocacy manager for Plan International - which is implementing the programme with the government.

If you have to choose between a meal and a birth certificate you are going to choose food, it just makes sense
Nadya Kassam, Plan International

"If you are a trafficked child and you are caught by the police, [a birth certificate] will make sure you are not criminalised as an adult," she explains.

"If you can prove your age, then you will be part of the youth justice system rather than being tried as an adult."

Families currently have up to 60 days following a birth to apply for a certificate.

Although the application cost was halved two years ago, the $1 fee still discourages the poorest.

"Even in some countries where fees have been reduced it still acts as a barrier," says Ms Kassam.

"If you have to choose between a meal and a birth certificate you are going to choose food, it just makes sense."

A civil registration day held at a village in Burkina Faso
Without a birth certificate a person does not exisit, according to the law

The choice till now has been a difficult one for many, particularly those living in remote or rural areas where there are limited government services at best.

But this year, registering children from birth to age 18 will be free of charge in an effort to get more parents in the West African nation to do so.

When I heard about it I cycled all the way to Ouagadougou from my village
Farmer Tiendrebeogo Antoine

Farmer and father of seven, Tiendrebeogo Antoine, says this initiative has come as a great relief to him.

"A true citizen should have a birth certificate," he proclaims.

"I have waited all this time because of lack of funds. When I heard about it I cycled all the way to [the capital] Ouagadougou from my village."

Salamata Sawadogo, the minister of human rights promotion, acknowledges that there have been problems in the past getting families to register their children.

"In Africa in general, and in Burkina Faso in particular, the big majority of children are born and become adults and yet they do not have birth certificates," he admits.

But this, he says, is not just a problem for the family, it is also a problem for the state.

"Someone who has no birth certificate is someone who does not exist according to the law. In order to exercise and enjoy your rights as a citizen you must be identifiable, this is a necessity."


Landlocked Burkina Faso is one of the world's poorest countries and home to some 13 million people.

Chid in Burkina Faso
According to the UN 1.2m children are trafficked every year

With elections coming up for the country next year, getting a birth certificate has become even more important.

Dipama Zango Rosalie is seizing the opportunity to register her children.

"I have been in this queue since 8 am to try to have birth certificates for three of my five children who do not yet have birth certificates," she explains.

"A birth certificate is important because it allows you to enrol a child in school. It means a child can know its own identity, and can be used to vote during elections."

The reasons preventing families for registering their children at birth are not just cost. A lack of infrastructure or geographic remoteness can also make the process difficult.

Then there are the cultural barriers.

"In different circumstances, for example, there will be a gender slant," explains Ms Kassam.

"Some countries will favour boys and get the boy enrolled and the girl will be left to work at home."

But cultural norms, she insists, should not prevent parents from registering their children.

Articles seven and eight of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child declares that national governments must register children immediately after birth.

Such a move is a critical first step in ensuring a child's rights throughout life.

"Birth registration is one of the only issues that has two articles in the convention, it's really important, it touches on so many different areas of life, that you really can't do without one," says Ms Kassam.

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