Tunis — Mauritania's national civil registration process is preventing some children from attending public school and taking mandatory national examinations, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should change its policies to ensure that no school-age child is deprived of the right to education because of a lack of proper identity documents.
Many Mauritanians have been unable to complete the biometric civil registration process that began in 2011. Citizens and non-citizen residents are required to produce a range of official paperwork, but many people lack the necessary documents and have found the process of replacing them arduous. Families told Human Rights Watch that some schools have rejected pupils who lack civil registration, even though school attendance is compulsory from ages 6 to 14. Those who have found a work-around to enroll - often thanks to the leniency of a school administrator - cannot take the national tests they must pass to graduate from elementary, middle, and high school.
"The Mauritanian government needs to ensure that a child's right to education is no longer collateral damage in the civil registration process," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 families in relatively poor neighborhoods of greater Nouakchott, Mauritania's capital, whose children were either unable to enroll in public school or prevented from taking examinations for want of the required civil registration documents.
The Education Ministry estimated that 80.4 percent of primary school-age children were enrolled in either a public or private school during the 2016-17 school year, but that only 35 percent of children completing their last year of primary school went on to secondary school that year.
Nationals and residents who complete civil registration under the program that began in May 2011 receive a National Identification Number, which is required for most health and social services.
For a child to register, their legal guardians must, at a minimum, provide the child's birth certificate, a copy of the parents' or caregivers' national identity card or death certificate and a copy of the parents' marriage certificate. To obtain a birth certificate, newborns must be registered at the closest civil registration center within two months. After this deadline, their parents must seek a court judgment in lieu of a birth certificate.
Both adults and children must register at the civil registration center closest to their place of birth, meaning that some adults must travel to complete the process. The administration considers birth and marriage certificates and other proofs of civil status issued before 1998, when the last national population census was conducted, to be invalid for the current civil registration process.
Despite Mauritania's attempt to standardize civil registration procedures, they have evolved since 2011. A Mauritanian anthropologist who has studied the process has found that local rules governing registration are often passed on orally. Local nongovernmental organizations supporting applicants Human Rights Watch interviewed said that the rules are not applied consistently across civil registration centers.
The families interviewed all reported that they had made a good-faith effort to register and obtain new identity documents, but had failed. The reasons included the loss of the child's birth certificate, the absence of the parents' marriage certificate, the foreign nationality of the father, or the fact that a child was born out of wedlock. Some families had managed to find private or Quranic schools that would enroll their children without the required identity documents but knew that they would encounter obstacles when it came time to take mandatory national examinations.
All the families interviewed are of modest means and belong either to Mauritania's Haratine (Hassaniya-speaking former slaves or descendants of slaves) or Afro-Mauritanian populations. Some Mauritanian groups contend the civil registration process discriminates against these groups. Human Rights Watch findings only describe the experiences of those interviewed.
Several Mauritanian nongovernmental organizations view the civil registration process as a major impediment to academic progress. "When we try to help children transition to secondary school, we are told that applicants must provide proof of civil registration," said Aminetou Ely, who runs a national nongovernmental organization offering primary school classes to children descended from slaves.
In 2015, UNICEF estimated that one third of Mauritanian children below age 5 had no civil registration and that only 40 percent of children from the poorest households were registered, compared with 85 percent of children from the wealthiest households.
"Mauritania's biometric civil registration process clearly is keeping some children out of the classroom," Whitson said. "The government should ensure that public schools do not exclude children on the basis of their civil registration status."
The Civil Registration Process
Mauritania is a party to international human rights treaties safeguarding children's right to education. Under article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified in 1991) and article 11 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ratified in 2005), Mauritania recognizes the right of the child to education and its need to "take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates."
In 2016, the Interior and Education Ministries adopted a joint memorandum addressed to all regional governors providing that "no student shall be enrolled in a public or private educational institution unless the registration process has been completed in the manner stipulated by law." The memorandum also provided that "no one shall be permitted to sit for national examinations or tests unless they have completed biometric registration procedures and possess a national identity card."
The parents interviewed described the civil registration process variously as "confusing" and "time-consuming," and criticized what they considered was a lack of proper guidance from the administration and the costs associated with obtaining the numerous documents required. Parents and children have not been identified by their full names to protect their privacy.
When adults cannot register, their children cannot register either. Adults lacking the required papers must apply for substitute documents such as birth or marriage certificates at the registration center closest to their place of birth.
Mamadou Anne, director of a civil registration center in the Nouakchott district of Sebkha, told Human Rights Watch that if someone lacks the required documents, a group of "notables" from their home town can certify their identity and the identity and marital status of their parents. For people born in remote areas, though, traveling to their place of birth can be costly, strenuous, and time-consuming.
A Mauritanian anthropologist who studied the civil registration process in 2016 reported that applicants faced hardship caused by the closure of several registration centers outside the capital, in addition to the common "incompetence, absenteeism, lack of training and attitude sometimes close to racism" of staff. Anne, the director of the Sebkha center, said that that the authorities had not closed these centers but rather were in the process of renovating them.
On October 19, 2017, Human Rights Watch raised with Interior Minister Ahmedou Ould Abdallah the difficulties that the lack of civil registration can create for getting an education. Ould Abdallah said that the administration provides work-arounds when families cannot meet certain formalities and asserted that "no student has been prevented from taking a national examination for want of civil registration."
But the Human Rights Watch findings contradict this assertion. While some families found work-arounds, others reported that their children were either turned away from schools or prevented from sitting for the national examinations. All families said they had made numerous attempts to obtain civil registration documents for their children.
Children who are denied admission to public school effectively end up dropping out unless they can gain admission to a private school. Five of those interviewed said that they themselves or an immediate relative withdrew from public school because they lacked civil registration.
In December, Human Rights Watch sent questions based on its preliminary findings to the interior and education ministers. The authorities have not responded. A request by Human Rights Watch to meet with these ministers to discuss this matter during a three-week visit to Mauritania in January and February 2018 went unanswered.
To address the lack of data on the issue, the National Coalition of Mauritanian Organizations for Education is conducting a quantitative study assessing the nexus between rates of school enrollment and civil registration in the regions of Trarza, Guidimaka, and Hodh Ech Chargui.
Accounts from Families
Mariama, 47, lives in a shack with her 10 children in Nouakchott. She is originally from the Gorgol region in the south. She moved to Nouakchott in 2016 and fell deeper into poverty when the father of her children left.
Because she lacks a marriage certificate, her children are considered born out of wedlock (enfants naturels). Although both she and their father have registered and possess valid national identity documents, Mariama has not been able to register any of her children.
When a couple is married before a municipal officer, they receive a marriage certificate as proof of their civil union. But it remains common practice for some to marry only before a cleric. The couple can later apply to a court for a marriage certificate that is valid for administrative procedures.
"When we used to live in the Gorgol region, I tried to enroll my kids in public school, but their applications were denied because they have no civil registration," Mariama said. Human Rights Watch was not able to determine what procedural steps she took in Gorgol to register her children.
When the family moved to Nouakchott, the Association of Women Heads of Family, Ely's nongovernmental group, helped to arrange for some of Mariama's children to enroll in a local public primary school.
Human Rights Watch met Khaira and two of her children, 7-year old Tourad and 10-year old Fatimata, at a support center in Nouakchott.
Khaira has three children ages 7 to 18. Her husband is absent and Khaira no longer has their marriage certificate. Without current information about her husband, Khaira's children cannot obtain civil registration. To replace her marriage certificate, she has to seek a court judgment and find two witnesses willing to testify that she married the father of her children.
"I tried many times to enroll my children in the nearby public school," she said. "The school director explained to me that he has to follow instructions: children without papers cannot enroll. He asked me to obtain a civil registration and only then could my children attend classes."
Mamadou Ahmed Sokho, a 38-year-old father of four living in the outskirts of Nouakchott, said: "None of my children [three of whom are school-age] go to school. Every year, I try to enroll them in public school, but the school asks for their papers. I've enrolled them in private Quranic schools instead."
Sokho participated in the 1998 national census via Mauritania's diplomatic representation in Ivory Coast, where he then lived. In 2011 he attempted to register himself and his children but the civil registration center where he applied stated that the national identification number printed on his identity card did not enable them to retrieve data from the 1998 census - a common situation, Mauritanian activists told Human Rights Watch. The authorities have since required him to provide his 1998 "census number," which he has been unable to find. As a result, Sokho cannot register himself, or his children, and they remain unable to enroll in public schools, he said.
A small number of the parents interviewed had been able to make ad hoc arrangements with a teacher or school director for some of their children to attend classes in public schools. However, only two of them had found a way for their children to take the national examination at the end of primary school (concours). And none of the children who were old enough to sit for the national examination at the end of middle school (brevet) or the national examination required for university admission (baccalauréat) were allowed to do so.
Babacar, 18, said he lost his identity documents and has been unable to complete the civil registration process. Babacar managed to enroll in primary school, and even repeated his last year in a private institution that arranged to let him take the concours - required to enroll in middle school. However, four years later, he hit a wall because without papers he could not take the brevet - required to enroll in high school.
"No papers, no exam they told me, so I withdrew from school and tried to find a solution," Babacar said.
Babacar went to a civil registration center himself with his mother's identity documents, his father's death certificate, and a photocopy of his birth certificate. The center denied his application because he lacked an official copy of his birth certificate.
To obtain a new birth certificate, Babacar would have to fill out an administrative request, submit an affidavit certifying the loss from the police station near his place of residence and pay a fee. Babacar did not seem aware of these procedural steps. He reported that municipal officers merely rejected his application as is and that he couldn't complete his registration.
"Since then, I work as a fisherman," he said. "Fishing doesn't make much money but we manage. I would love to go back to school, so much."