There are many people around the world that are born and die without leaving any official trace of their existence. They are ghosts in their own country; unaccounted for, unidentifiable and hidden.
The lack of functional civil registration systems in many places ensures that a lot of births and deaths are never recorded, effectively rendering huge parts of the world’s population invisible. This phenomenon is often more prevalent in low and middle income countries whose systems aren’t fully developed and key statistics not recorded. Although Morocco has undertaken many important initiatives to guarantee the rights of it’s most vulnerable citizens. It remains one of 39 countries classed as very low on the vital statistics performance index (VSPI) which calculates a score of efficiency for each country. According to a report by Unicef, between 2010 – 2015 6% of children born in Morocco went unregistered.
Moroccan Children’s Trust (MCT) is a British NGO that has been working in partnership with “Fondation Amane pour la Protection de l’Enfance” (FAPE) for ten years and advocates for the rights of children that have no legal status in Morocco. In spite of these children being born in the country; the lack of understanding surrounding the registration process itself and an overly complex bureaucratic judiciary means they live outside the system, the state offers them no protection, their basic rights are not respected and they are socially stigmatised as a result. These children can’t legally attend school when they reach the age of 11, they are unable to access basic healthcare provisions and upon reaching adulthood aren’t able to work legally, travel or vote for political representation.
A HIGH PRICE TO PAY
The reasons children aren’t registered vary greatly; but this issue often disproportionately affects the poorest communities, those with less formal education and those marginalised by their family connections or their marital status. Many people have difficulty accessing the complex process, but often don’t understand it’s importance, and in any case can’t afford it in the first place. Registration after the first thirty days can be a costly business, “I remember a father that said to me, ‘ you expect me to sell three or four of my goats for a simple document when thanks to them, my whole family can live’ ”, confides Abdellah Soussi, FAPE president and child protection specialist. A formidable investment for a lot of families Abdellah explains, “taking into account the costs of travel, the legal fees and the costs to obtain the necessary documents, overall it comes to between 500 and 1000 Moroccan dirhams per dossier”. Given that the average salary for a low income family is sometimes less than 1000 dirhams a month you can understand the constraints some families face.
UNDER WHICH FAMILY NAME IS THE CHILD RECOGNISED?
It’s also important to note the issue in relation to the specific Moroccan context as there are other countries around the world that have similar problems. In spite of having much more progressive policies regarding women’s rights after the changes to Moroccan family law in 2004; the laws and procedures that make up the process of civil registration are heavily influenced by the traditional patriarchal norms that dictate how family heritage is passed on. This unfortunately makes the process of registering children born to single mothers much more complex. If there is no father figure present then under which family name is the child recognised?
In Morocco as a woman giving birth to a child out of wedlock you risk not only being socially stigmatised but as stated in article 490 of the penal code you also risk imprisonment from anywhere between one month to a year. However article 155 of Moroccan family law clarifies that if a woman is accidentally pregnant (choubha) and gives birth within the statutory period then that child’s paternal affiliation shall be attributed to the author of the sexual intercourse legally established through any means possible. So on one hand the state recognises and aims to establish the paternity of illegitimate children but also criminalises the mother for giving birth.
“A LOT OF WOMEN ARE ASHAMED TO SAY THEY’RE ALONE”
The result explains Abdellah is that many women hide the truth, “a lot of women are ashamed to say that they’re alone. We have cases of pregnant women who upon arrival at the hospital register the name of any man that they know as the father, even if it isn’t true. Except that it’s impossible to modify that name afterwards.” He goes on to explain a case of a woman who was separated from her husband but not divorced. “She had sexual relations with another man and fell pregnant”, he remembers. “So either the mother declares that the child is the result of her new relationship with another man and so charged with adultery, or she claims that her husband is the father of the child; however when approached the husband won’t recognise the child as his own.”
These are just some of examples of the many children stuck in the system, never recognised as citizens in their own country, unable to be registered because they’re trapped in a struggle to ascertain paternity or have false names on their birth certificate. This issue has far reaching implications not only for the child but for the country itself; not knowing how many citizens live within it’s borders causes huge challenges for policy makers and spending plans across different regions. This issue is only further magnified by the many children that are simply unable to be registered because their parents or in some instances grandparents were never registered themselves. Generation after generation the cycle is repeated and the problem compounded.
CITIZENS’ ACCESS TO REGISTRATION
Over the last year MCT and FAPE have been working on “Citizens’ Access to Registration” (CARE) a national advocacy project funded by the US government’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). The project has been pushing for judicial and procedural reform of the civil registration system in Morocco to ensure that all children can be legally registered across the country. The team has been working across five provinces in the southern region of Souss-masa and has detected over 2000 individual cases of unregistered children in the last year. Their social workers have helped 342 families access legal identity for their children, organised 77 awareness raising events across the region reaching over 5000 members of the public and trained 750 local actors in the procedures for registering children. All of these real cases and discussions with local actors have fed into the overall national advocacy strategy acting as a body of evidence highlighting the problems that the government need to address.
The advocacy work focused on specific consultations with the main actors across the country resulting in a list of 48 recommendations, from specific legal changes to the simplification of certain procedures. These recommendations were then presented during their national conference in Rabat on the 3rd May 2017 to a group of elected officials, civil servants and civil society representatives. This was then followed by the submission of a bill for reform to parliament which resulted in the government deciding to establish a national inter-ministerial committee for civil registration to coordinate work across the country and ensure present and future Moroccan citizens are recorded appropriately.
Such a basic right to be able to identify freely and legally with the country into which you are born can have such a fundamental and profound impact on your life. The social stigma reinforces the psychological impact of not having a legal identity. So as well as the more practical issues it also impacts the development of that child as well. “ With more and more single mothers in the country, and an increasingly vulnerable population”, Abdellah concludes, “the trend will not change until the system changes”.
The success of project CARE demonstrates the national impact it has had as well as highlighting the motivation for change from those in power. Although some important progress has been made, as we look to the future the hope is that the committee will consider all the proposed recommendations and begin to implement real change on behalf of all Moroccan children.
By Oliver Roy
Oliver worked as Programme Manager with Moroccan Children’s Trust for two years in Taroudant, Morocco. He was involved in various areas of our work, including our Street Child Project and project CARE (Citizens’ Access to Registration).