Cameroon says more than 2 million children in the country of 25 million do not have required birth certificates. The central African state blames dropping birth registration on the conflicts affecting parts of the country and the COVID-19 pandemic.
About 400 schoolchildren and their parents gathered Friday at the Government Bilingual Primary School in Cameroon's northern town of Maroua, as head teacher Pierre Ngeala spoke about the importance of the document for all citizens.
"When learners do not possess this document, at the end of the primary cycle the child cannot continue the education," he said. "He becomes a dropout, he joins those in the streets, becomes drug addict, gangster and what have you."
Ngeala said 140 of the 400 children in his school do not have birth certificates. He said most come from families who fled Boko Haram attacks on Cameroon's northern border with Nigeria.
Fils Doumbarbai, the highest government official in charge of civil status registration in the northern border area, said most birth registration centers closed in the past 10 years because of Boko Haram.
A 2020 census indicates that close to 400,000 children in schools on Cameroon's northern border with Nigeria do not have birth certificates, Doumbarbai said, adding that Cameroon law requires the documentation in order to test out of primary school.
Etienne Bayoala, a businessman who has been helping mothers and children obtain birth certificates, said leaders should educate communities on the importance of the document.
He said if the elite in the community each helped at least two children each year to get their birth certificates, the number of teenagers who drop out of school because they lack the documentation to take any official exam will plummet.
Nandjui Aounti, the highest official in charge of birth registration in the English-speaking North-West region, said the separatist conflict there has stopped most parents from registering births.
The situation has gotten worse since March, she said, when the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Cameroon. Many mothers scared of contracting the virus are delivering their babies at home and do not report the births to authorities, Aounti said.
"You have newborn babies who were moved from one location to another, so you have a lot of them, that we do not actually have an account as to how many of those children are displaced," she said. "We do know that some of them are missing, so we are struggling. We are making services available and doing more sensitization, so they know that the birth certificates have to be established for these children."
The U.N. says a birth certificate is a vital official document that establishes a child's name, age and nationality. Without it, a child may have trouble obtaining an education, health care, and other government services.