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NICARAGUA: Name and Identity for Thousands of Indigenous Children

José Adán Silva

BILWI, Nicaragua, Sep 2 2008 (IPS) - Some 250,000 indigenous children and adolescents who had no legal identity in Nicaragua are in the process of being registered – an essential step towards achieving recognition of their basic human rights.

This was achieved by the "Right to a Name and Nationality" programme run by Save the Children, Plan International, UNICEF (the United Nations children’s fund), Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) and regional and municipal authorities.

"A person who is not registered has no last name and not even a first name, because rural families and society call children whatever they want, which means children grow up without even having their own name," UNICEF official Hugo Rodríguez, a consultant for the programme, told IPS.

Five years ago, human rights groups and universities in Nicaragua expressed concern about the fact that around 500,000 youngsters in indigenous communities in the eastern North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) had no birth certificates.

An investigation indicated that nearly 40 percent of children in Nicaragua are not legally registered and thus do not figure in the country’s demographic statistics, said Rodríguez, a statistician.

In indigenous areas on the Atlantic coast and in central and northern Nicaragua, researchers found native communities where 100 percent of the children and adolescents, and a portion of the adults, had never been inscribed in the civil register.

These findings led to the start of a mission that has registered 97,000 children and teenagers in the RAAN, out of 100,000 minors without a legal identity, in the past four and a half years.

The efforts expanded this year to the RAAS, where the goal is to register 100,000 youngsters, and to the province of Nueva Guinea, south of that area, where about 50,000 minors have no birth certificates.

"There were communities where not even the parents were registered before, let alone their descendants, and the entire community had to get involved to help them remember dates, last names, addresses and other information about their relatives," Susana Marley, a Miskito community leader in the village of Waspam, along the banks of the Coco river on the border with Honduras, told IPS.

Marley mentioned cases of people who travelled five days by river to register their children, and chose names and even last names for them on the spot, at the time of registration. "They couldn't even agree on what their children’s names were," she said.

Last year in Waspam, the Health Ministry reported the births of 1,801 children, but only 144 figured in the records of the local civil register.

UNICEF staff and municipal authorities with whom IPS spoke agreed that the main cause of the problem, besides the lack of education, is the extreme poverty plaguing the country’s indigenous people, 80 percent of whom live on less than a dollar a day, according to United Nations figures.

"People can’t afford to miss a single day of work in their fishing or farming activities, to leave the villages to register their children," said Marley.

The programme has already had an impact. According to the CSE, after the project was completed in the RAAN, the voters list had expanded by between 33 and 45 percent in the different municipalities.

CSE magistrate José Luis Villavicencio highlighted the progress made by the programme and commented to IPS that the universal registration of births "is an important task for strengthening the country’s institutional capacity."

"If a municipality does not have exact information on how many citizens live there, it is impossible to design accurate management plans for local development, and many people are left without the possibility of voting and exercising their citizen rights," he said.

Article 7 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that "The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name, (and) the right to acquire a nationality".

The programme has been completed in the RAAN, and universal registration of births will continue in the future thanks to training received by municipal authorities and community organisations, Rodríguez explained.

In the RAAS, meanwhile, several municipalities have already been declared free of unregistered children. In late August, UNICEF reported that more than 8,000 minors in the municipalities of Corn Island and Bluefields had received birth certificates, as the first stage of the project came to an end.

The process of data collection, registration and issuing of birth certificates was carried out by the Caribbean Coastal Centre for Autonomous Human Rights (CEDEHCA), with the support of the other institutions involved in the programme, said Olga Moraga, UNICEF communications officer in Managua.

"My daughters learned to read and write thanks to the solidarity of Christian monks, because the public schools wouldn't accept them since they had no birth certificates," Marcia Cunninghan, who lives in Bilwi, the capital of the RAAN, told IPS. Like her three daughters, the 36-year-old mother had no documents either.

The programme has given tens of thousands of children and adolescents an identity and enabled them to gain access to health care and education, recreational facilities, and civic participation, and to have their voices heard in their communities, said Argentina Martínez, acting director of Plan International Nicaragua.

The registration of births is also a fundamental aspect for prevention of people trafficking, and provides the authorities with precise population statistics, which allow them to draw up developments plans and design accurate budgets, she said.

Miriam Hooker, of CEDEHCA, said that guaranteeing the right to a name and nationality "guarantees the autonomy of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean coastal region," because autonomy is based on recognition of the identity of each ethnic group, which is also achieved through registering births.

Indigenous people make up 8.6 percent of Nicaragua’s 5.4 million people, according to the University of the Autonomous Regions of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast.

The Miskito, Mayangna, Garifuna and Rama ethnic groups in the Atlantic coastal region, one of the poorest parts of the country, represent 5.3 percent of the population. The rest of the country’s indigenous people are mixed-race descendants of the Nahua, Chorotega, Sutiaba and Matagalpa communities along the Pacific coast and in northern and central Nicaragua.

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