Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

PARAGUAY: Leader in Invisible Children

David Vargas

ASUNCION, Aug 30 2007 (IPS) - Six out of every 10 children in Paraguay were not registered at birth by their parents, and have no identity documents. In the eyes of the state, they simply do not exist.

There are 600,000 Paraguayan children under 18 in this position. They have no access to public health and education services, Belinda Portillo, programme manager for the non-governmental organisation Plan Paraguay, told IPS.

Most of these children do not go to school, although some educational institutions, particularly in rural areas, will accept children without documents. The problem is that they do not appear on the official roll of students, and so are not recognised as such by the Education Ministry.

This problem does not affect Paraguay alone. Asunción hosted the First Latin American Regional Conference on Birth Registration and the Right to Identity, which ended Thursday.

The conference was organised by the Paraguayan Ministry of Justice and Labour, the Organisation of American States (OAS), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the non-governmental Plan International, which works for the rights of children.

Under the theme "Register Me, Make Me Visible", the three-day meeting brought together delegates from 18 countries, including high-level officials, technical experts and representatives of non-governmental organisations, with the aim of designing strategies for achieving universal, timely and free registration for Latin America’s children by 2015.

The participants urged governments to recognise registration in civil registries as a right. Indigenous and black people in the region particularly suffer from under-registration.

The final document that emerged from the conference identified obstacles like administrative weaknesses of civil registries, lack of adequate legislation and political will, insufficient awareness of the importance of the issue, and the cost of registration.

The case of Dahiana Nohemi Ocampos Ruiz Díaz, a Paraguayan girl, is typical. Her parents registered her at the Civil Registry Office just a week ago. She will be five years old in a few months’ time.

Her father, José Félix Ocampos, told IPS that he had not been able to register Dahiana earlier because he could not afford the fee. He sells muffins on sidewalks, and makes barely enough to scrape by.

Things changed when the Paraguayan authorities instituted free registration. "I was able to register my daughter and get her identity document," Ocampos said.

UNICEF says that Paraguay has the highest proportion of unregistered births in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Of the 11 million births a year in the region, two million are not registered in a timely manner, according to a UNICEF study.

After Paraguay, the countries with the highest proportion of unregistered births are Haiti (30 percent), the Dominican Republic (25 percent), Brazil (24 percent), Nicaragua (19 percent) and Bolivia (18 percent).

"In Latin America, one child in six in the under-five population is not registered, while in Paraguay, 65 percent of children born in one year are not registered in a timely fashion," the local representative of UNICEF, Carlos Mazuera, told IPS.

In every Latin American and Caribbean country, registration in the civil registers is a legal obligation. But this is hard to enforce, and the main obstacle is that registration "is not yet perceived as a right, either of the state or for society," he said.

"National averages hide dramatic differences within and between countries," he said, adding that "Cuba, Chile and Guyana are close to the goal of universal registration."

"Denial of the right to an identity is also caused by red tape, or the complexities of the procedures, or the distances to the offices," Mazuera said.

In the Dominican Republic, for example, 34 percent of people in rural areas are unregistered, compared to 18 percent in urban areas, he said.

Statistics quoted by Paraguay’s Secretariat for Children and Adolescents (SNIA) differ from the figures from UNICEF. SNIA gave an estimate of 43 percent under-registration of births.

"These persons are excluded from the rights, duties and obligations reserved for those who are properly registered," said the head of the country’s Civil Registry Office, Rossana Ramírez, at the inaugural session of the conference.

Néstor Vera of Plan International told IPS that unregistered children, whose parents are usually young and marginalised, are easy prey for human traffickers.

Ramírez said that the situation in Paraguay was worse years ago, when the Civil Registry Office used a manual filing system. With computerisation, documents can now be issued to thousands of people every week.

She said that the main problem preventing parents from registering their newborn children is that they, too, lack identity documents and birth certificates.

Portillo, of Plan Paraguay, pointed out that political factors enter into the phenomenon of exclusion, because the powers-that-be lack a sincere will to honour the principle of universal registration.

This is reflected in the meagre budget allocated to the Civil Registry Office, she said.

Forty-two percent of the employees in the 478 registry offices in the country receive monthly salaries of less than 190 dollars, the minister of Justice and Labour, Derlis Céspedes, told IPS.

This means that in many cases, birth registration is free only in name. The law may state that registration and the first birth certificate are available without charge, but in fact many parents have to pay two or three dollars to get the procedure done.

Geography is another factor in under-registration. Some places are so far from the nearest urban area that it is difficult for parents to get to the registry offices.

One participant at the conference, an adviser on children’s rights in Nicaragua, Vivian Sequeira Zavala, told IPS that Central America is among those with the highest rates of under-registration.

In contrast with official figures, "up to 80 percent under-registration is mentioned, because communities are far apart and the systems do not work properly," she said.

The OAS representative in Paraguay, Ronald Iván Argueta, said that another obstacle is discrimination against certain social groups, like indigenous people and those of African origin. In Nicaragua, he said, 80 percent of the Miskito indigenous people living on the Atlantic coast do not legally exist.

Plan International’s representative in Bolivia, Felipe Sánchez, said the situation in his country was similar. "Geographical location is one of the difficulties that must be overcome, so that more children may be registered," he told IPS.

Rosa María Ortiz, of the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, said that registration is not a need but a right. She said countries should introduce penalties for parents who do not carry out this requirement.

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