Ouagadougou — Nearly 5.5 million people - mostly women and children - are to receive birth certificates in a country-wide exercise over the next 12 months. According to Burkina Faso's latest census, conducted in 2006, the rate of non-registration is particularly high amongst women and children, of whom three million (60 percent being girls) are not on the public registry.
Clément Sawadogo, Minister of Territorial Administration and Decentralisation in Burkina Faso, tells IPS, "This is something new, it has never been done in our country. We will do it because we need for everyone in the country to have their identity papers at this important time."
Burkina Faso will hold presidential, municipal and parliamentary elections in 2010, 2011 and 2012 respectively, though this is not the sole catalyst for the operation. Over four million dollars will be spent on the registration exercise, a response from the Burkinabé authorities to a recommendation of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Sylvana Nzirorera, Deputy Director of UNICEF in Burkina Faso which is supporting the initiative, told IPS, "This will allow every child born in Burkina Faso to feel they belong in this country because birth registrations and identity cards underpin the legal existence of every citizen."
For UNICEF, the absence of registration documents deprives children of protection.
"The police, trained on the issue of child trafficking, cannot effectively enforce the law because they cannot prove that unregistered children - who cross the border like others - aren't old enough to cross without their parents," Nzirorera tells IPS.
Herve Peries, UNICEF representative in Burkina Faso, says birth registration also allows for the implementation of the Code of Persons and the Family, which stipulates that a girl may not marry before the age of 17.
Sixty-year-old Abiba Sawadogo. whose grandsons have no papers and are not in school, says that at least her youngest grandson (aged five) will go to school if he can secure documentation.
"The eldest could not go to school because we didn't have the right information, but this last grandson has a chance because of this operation," she tells IPS.
¨In Burkina Faso, a declaration of birth must be completed no more than 60 days after the birth of a child, but the cost (about $2.40) is considered prohibitive by some parents and the long distances one must travel to certain administrative services prevent many births from being recorded earlier.
"This free service will allow everyone in my family to have papers," says Ousmane Tinto, a 49 year-old living in Tampouy district, north of Ouagadougou. "But we must ensure that the service is effective at ground level," he adds, expressing the fear that bureaucracy and cumbersome administrative procedures will hinder the operation.
UNICEF is working with Plan Burkina and Sant'Egidio, two other NGOs which are already putting considerable effort into the initiative. For example, since 2004, Plan Burkina has enabled 250,000 children to be placed on the public registry. Thanks to these partners, the Burkinabé state has been able to assemble financial resources and provide administrative staff and logistical support.
UNICEF, which has pledged financial support for the registration of all birth certificates and all other registers, will contribute up to $350,000 towards this operation. The process will take place over a 12-month period and focus on documents for children aged 0-18 years.
To encourage public support for the initiative, minister Sawadogo spent several days meeting with members of political parties, civil society and representative s of different religious communities.
Sawadogo explains that a mobilisation led by the prefecture and mayors will comb through every town, village and district to identify all persons who are not on the public registry.
"If need be, people will be transported to villages in order for us to take a census of all persons with no documents. Interested parties will be provided with a full copy of the legal declaration," adds the minister.â-¨
Adama Dembélé, the chairman of the operation's steering committee, says, "A once-off operation like this is great, but we'll need to make the public records system a long-term reality so that as a matter of principle, people get used to registering children within the legal 60-day period."
The government of Burkina Faso is taking full advantage of the opportunity by registering people beyond the priority groups of women and children, in order to update the voters' roll in the West African country.â-¨â-¨
"For the elections, an identity document is the acceptable document. This is because a lot of documents we allow are not reliable. These include family identity cards and birth certificates without photos, which form the basis of endless debates amongst political parties," says minister Sawadogo.
According to Dembélé, the involvement of prosecutors who will go on inspection toursm will prevent fraud, particularly as regards the duplication of identity papers or changes to key details in the documents.
Civil society groups have welcomed the initiative, even though they express dissatisfaction at their low level of involvement in organising the operation.
According to Xavier Kinda of an association called Action for Justice and Social Citizenship, the operation "will allow mainly rural populations to benefit from birth certificates for a period of time because... a voter's card will now be subject to the holding of an identity card."
Aminata Bounkoungou, president of Association for the Promotion of the Rural World, already had a similar project running. She told IPS, "The idea is good, but from an organisational point of view, members of the community sector have not been greatly involved, although we know they play a very big role in these kinds of activities."â-¨
¨Meanwhile, political parties, grouped under the Coordination of Opposition Parties (CPO), have already expressed concern about the operation being used to tilt voter lists in favour of the ruling party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP). However the CDP rejects these allegations.