Fourteen-year-old Ernestine Elimbi smiled and waved her birth certificate Thursday at the Endom district ceremonial ground in Cameroon’s center region.
It was the first birth certificate she has ever received, and unlike many of her peers, Elimbi said she will reach her dream of having an education.
"I am very, very happy now, because I want to go to school and become a doctor so that I can be treating people,” Elimbi said.
Officials in Cameroon have for the first time issued thousands of birth certificates to children who missed out on an education because they lacked the document.
Officials say most women in Cameroon give birth at home, and many fail to register it, leaving their children without access to an education and other rights. Authorities acknowledge that about 3 million children lack the certificate.
Elimbi said before today, she was denied registration to take an exam for senior secondary school because she didn't have a birth certificate.
Her mother, 32-year-old Martha Elimbi, said she gave birth to her daughter at home and was unaware she had to register her at birth. Her daughter Ernestine was one of 5,000 Cameroonians, most of them children, who received birth certificates Wednesday and Thursday.
Endom Mayor Rene Bekolo Essama said the number of unregistered births in his district is alarming.
He said the first 1,000 birth certificates were given free of charge to babies less than 9 months old. Essama said more than 4,000 birth certificates were issued free of charge to adults and 14- to 15-year-old children who missed out on education because they lacked the document.
Essama said they’re seeking funding to issue several thousand more certificates for people who need and want them but don’t have the money.
Birth certificates are free in Cameroon for babies less than 3 months old. Anyone older must pay an $8 fee.
Marie-Therese Abena Ondoa, Cameroon’s minister of women's empowerment and the family, said that the issuance of birth certificates is complicated by a lack of knowledge of the system and people who take advantage of that.
"If you establish a birth certificate within the limit, it is supposed to be free,” she said. “But in some places, people [birth registration officers] will ask for money. So, you have ignorance and some type of corruption. It is very sad, because we know that it is the birth certificate that gives every child that is born the right to citizenship."
Ondoa said authorities will punish any birth registration officers caught demanding bribes, but gave no details.
The certificates issued this week are only a first step.
The government said about 3 million children lack birth certificates, more than 2 million of them of school age.
Authorities said many birth certificates were lost or destroyed in Cameroon’s separatist conflict that has so far displaced 750,000 people, most of them women and children. Many more were lost in attacks by Boko Haram militants on the northern borders with Chad and Nigeria.
Eddy Donkeng, who is with Plan International Cameroon, said the organization is helping to get birth certificates for children and is educating communities to make sure all births are registered.
"With the crisis in some regions, institutions are no longer operational at their full capacities,” Donkeng said. “The number of unregistered babies within the IDP [Internally Displaced People] and refugee communities is higher. People are more concerned about saving their lives by running from one place to another than registering their newborn babies."
Authorities say without a birth certificate, young Cameroonians are at a higher risk of becoming criminals or being forced into early marriages.