By Pierre-Claver KAMGAING (Download Pdf Version)
Without A Birth Certificate, We Do Not Exist! (Re)Thinking The Civil Status System In Cameroon
Curious as it may seem in the 21st century, UNICEF estimates that three out of four children in the world have never been officially registered. . In Cameroon, 66.1 percent of children remain in hiding. . In other words, they live without existing, without being recognised by the country whose citizenship they claim. This situation, which is deplorable to say the least, has consequences for both the State and the individual concerned. For the state, the civil status file is essential for the implementation of public policies, because without a mastery of demography, it is impossible to make socio-economic projections. For the child, who has the right to register his or her birth, the absence of such a document excludes him or her from the education system and from the services necessary for his or her growth, thus exposing him or her to exploitation and violence. However, it should be noted that the Cameroon civil status system is not new. It was “designed” and its foundations laid at the beginning of the 20th century by the German coloniser, whose work was continued by the French and English administrations. However, this system was designed more for the European population established on Cameroon soil than for the “natives”. Moreover, the various texts adopted by the Cameroon legislator after independence are more like a simple assembly of old provisions. Moreover, on the sidelines of the ordinary session of the National Assembly in November 2020, the problem of establishing birth certificates was not missed by the deputies. The result is the need to rethink the civil status system in order to better adapt it to the socio-political evolution of the country. But how can this be done? This necessarily involves some profound and substantial reforms. However, before devoting any substantial development to this, it would be wise to first identify the causes of the failure of the civil status system in Cameroon.
The causes of the failure of the civil status system
Although it is accepted that birth alone confers legal personality, it remains that birth must be recorded by an administrative document without which it is impossible to enjoy civil and political rights. In Cameroon, Ordinance No. 81/002 of 29 June 1981 is the main text organising civil status. It clearly establishes the principle of free registration of a record in the civil status register and determines the modalities for establishing and issuing this precious sesame.
However, the primary cause of the failure of the civil status system is social and relates to ignorance of the legislative framework. Thus, it should be remembered that the birth must be declared to the civil registrar within sixty days of the birth. It should be noted, however, that the wording of the text may pose a problem of interpretation because it contains an apparent contradiction. Indeed, when the child is born in a hospital, the head of the hospital or, failing that, the doctor or any person who assisted the mother, is required to declare the birth of the child within thirty days. However, if these persons have not made this declaration by the end of the thirty-day period, the law grants the parents “an additional period” of sixty days to declare the birth. Thus, according to the law, the declaration can be made within a total maximum period of ninety days – and not sixty days as mentioned in the law. Once this maximum period has expired, births can still be registered by the civil registrar within six months of the birth, but on the prior request of the public prosecutor. After the six-month period, the birth can only be registered by virtue of a judicial ruling rendered by the court of first instance of the place of birth.
In addition to this ignorance of the legal framework, there is a good deal of negligence and irresponsibility on the part of parents. Indeed, some parents often only really appreciate the importance of the birth certificate when they are faced with an administrative procedure for which it is required. Thus, in order to circumvent the judicial procedure, which they find time-consuming and financially expensive, they proceed by fraud. Similarly, the cultural and religious constraints that can influence the behaviour of citizens cannot be ignored. For example, in some regions, beyond cultural factors, the lack of schooling (or under-schooling) of young girls can explain the fact that they remain without a birth certificate.
In addition, the causes of failure may also be organisational, with the slowness often observed in the delivery of certificates. On the one hand, this slowness is partly explained by the irregular supply of registers to civil status centres.. On the other hand, it can be explained by the lack of – or little – diligence on the part of certain civil registrars, particularly in town halls where the prerogative of signing these records is reserved for the mayor or certain of his deputies. In concrete terms, the slowness in issuing records is likely to plunge declarants into oblivion and thus expose civil registers to possible damage. This is all the more serious as, to our knowledge, there are no mechanisms for informing users of civil registry centres of the availability of records.
Another cause of the failure is institutional and lies in the conditions of access of the population to civil status centres. Apart from diplomatic and consular missions, there are approximately 360 main centres and 2,300 special civil status centres throughout the country. No database, either from the National Civil Status Registration Office or from the various ministries, provides a precise map of civil status centres in the various regions, the list of staff deployed there, and useful information on how to get there. However, in general, it can be observed that the number of civil status centres is very low in relation to the country’s population, without hiding the fact that their distribution is not always proportional to the population density per region. Studies have shown, for example, that the rate of birth registration is around 84 per cent in urban areas and only 53 per cent in rural areas.. This panorama – which is no doubt not exhaustive – of the causes of the failure of the civil registration system makes it possible to clearly grasp the aspects in which reform seems necessary, if not necessary.
The need to reform the civil status system
The battle to reform the Cameroon civil status system must be fought on two fronts. It will require legislative reform, followed and supported by institutional reform.
On the legislative front, an increase in the time taken to declare births in rural areas would be welcome. Indeed, the legislator wanted to impose the same time constraints on parts of the territory with different realities. The best approach would have been to ask, for example, whether Cameroon citizens residing in Woromari, Herdegari or Fadjé Hissa in the far north have the same access to a civil status centre as citizens residing in Bafoussam. Having posed the problem in these terms, one would have realised that the administrative network of the territory is profoundly unbalanced and that, at this point, the quest for equity – which is opposed to arithmetical equality – requires treating differently those who are in different situations. A priori, there is nothing to prevent the granting of an additional three-month period to residents of remote areas of the territory, for example, which must first be identified. Similarly, the legislator must clearly establish the principle of the immediate issue of the birth certificate by the doctor. Certainly, the birth certificate is a key element in the birth registration procedure and without it, the civil registrar cannot draw up a record. This principle of immediacy should be extended to the issuing of the birth certificate itself, so that a parent who declares the birth of his or her child can, on the same day, take possession of the certificate. Thus, the lack of diligence on the part of these persons invested with a mission of general interest would constitute “refusal of a service due” or “systematic negligence”, offences provided for and punished respectively by Articles 148 and 151 of the Criminal Code. These offences would complement Article 341 of the same text, which punishes infringement of filiation and applies equally to public officials and to parents.
At the institutional level, it is important to create new civil status centres to bring them closer to rural populations. Among the priority areas for action,there is the Far North region where, for the year 2019-2020, up to 378762 primary school children did not have a birth certificate. In this region, it is sometimes necessary to travel more than 25 kilometres to find a functional civil status centre. The impoverishment and insecurity in the northern part of the country are likely to discourage parents. At the judicial level, the issue of birth certificates must be given a high profile. For example, it would be desirable for public prosecutors to visit schools to identify children without birth certificates in order to initiate the legal procedure for the judicial ruling of the certificate. Failing that, school principals could take the initiative by taking a census of “ghost” pupils and then referring the matter to the public prosecutor’s office of the nearest court. Moreover, there is nothing to prevent the competent courts from holding mobile court hearings in the localities where the need for acts is most felt. These legal proceedings should be initiated as a matter of urgency so that the child can quickly be restored to the rights conferred by the birth certificate.
In addition, in the context of decentralisation, it would be wise to support all initiatives carried out by human rights organisations in favour of the establishment of birth certificates. It is in this respect that the awareness-raising campaigns under the aegis of the National Civil Status Registration Office should be appreciated. However, these campaigns would benefit from the involvement of all non-governmental organisations that have made the issue of civil status certificates their focus. Similarly, it would be useful to involve both traditional chiefs and religious leaders in field activities. At the level of the communes specifically, the procedure for establishing records must be decentralised. In particular, the possibility of permanently delegating civil registrars or volunteers to hospitals and maternity wards to collect information on births – birth certificates – and above all to accompany parents in the procedure for drawing up birth certificates is considered.
Finally, the process of digital archiving of birth certificates should be initiated, as citizens are often confronted with the problem of their disappearance as a result of burglary, floods, fires and other bad weather, which means that the conditions of conservation are defective. This is a difficulty frequently encountered in special civil status centres which are real private homes, as well as in areas under threat. In order for BUNEC to be able to effectively fulfil its mission of centralising and archiving civil status records, it would be desirable to strengthen its budget.
For a State concerned with its development, the establishment of a reliable and coherent civil status system is essential. In Cameroon, it would make it possible to better secure nationality and would also serve as a solid foundation for the impetus of public policies. It therefore seems important to fight against the causes of the system’s failure. To dispel citizens’ ignorance, awareness campaigns should be intensified. To combat their negligence, it would be wise to force them to declare births by activating the lever of time limits and rigorously applying the penal provisions in this area. To overcome the barrier of distance, it would be desirable to bring the civil status centres closer to the population. These reforms must be carried out by all actors in the social sector, from the ministries concerned (MINAS, MINPROFF, MINEDUB, MINSANTE, MINDDEVEL, MINFI) to civil society organisations, without forgetting the various development partners.