Mauritania: Administrative Obstacles Keep Kids from School

Published: 29/Mar/2018
Source: Human Rights Watch

(Tunis) – Mauritania’s national civil registration process is preventing some children from attending public school and taking mandatory national examinations, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should change its policies to ensure that no school-age child is deprived of the right to education because of a lack of proper identity documents.

Many Mauritanians have been unable to complete the biometric civil registration process that began in 2011. Citizens and non-citizen residents are required to produce a range of official paperwork, but many people lack the necessary documents and have found the process of replacing them arduous. Families told Human Rights Watch that some schools have rejected pupils who lack civil registration, even though school attendance is compulsory from ages 6 to 14. Those who have found a work-around to enroll – often thanks to the leniency of a school administrator – cannot take the national tests they must pass to graduate from elementary, middle, and high school.

“The Mauritanian government needs to ensure that a child’s right to education is no longer collateral damage in the civil registration process,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 families in relatively poor neighborhoods of greater Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, whose children were either unable to enroll in public school or prevented from taking examinations for want of the required civil registration documents.

The Education Ministry estimated that 80.4 percent of primary school-age children were enrolled in either a public or private school during the 2016-17 school year, but that only 35 percent of children completing their last year of primary school went on to secondary school that year.

Nationals and residents who complete civil registration under the program that began in May 2011 receive a National Identification Number, which is required for most health and social services.

For a child to register, their legal guardians must, at a minimum, provide the child’s birth certificate, a copy of the parents’ or caregivers’ national identity card or death certificate and a copy of the parents’ marriage certificate. To obtain a birth certificate, newborns must be registered at the closest civil registration center within two months. After this deadline, their parents must seek a court judgment in lieu of a birth certificate.

Both adults and children must register at the civil registration center closest to their place of birth, meaning that some adults must travel to complete the process. The administration considers birth and marriage certificates and other proofs of civil status issued before 1998, when the last national population census was conducted, to be invalid for the current civil registration process.

Despite Mauritania’s attempt to standardize civil registration procedures, they have evolved since 2011. A Mauritanian anthropologist who has studied the process has found that local rules governing registration are often passed on orally. Local nongovernmental organizations supporting applicants Human Rights Watch interviewed said that the rules are not applied consistently across civil registration centers.

The families interviewed all reported that they had made a good-faith effort to register and obtain new identity documents, but had failed. The reasons included the loss of the child’s birth certificate, the absence of the parents’ marriage certificate, the foreign nationality of the father, or the fact that a child was born out of wedlock. Some families had managed to find private or Quranic schools that would enroll their children without the required identity documents but knew that they would encounter obstacles when it came time to take mandatory national examinations.

All the families interviewed are of modest means and belong either to Mauritania’s Haratine (Hassaniya-speaking former slaves or descendants of slaves) or Afro-Mauritanian populations. Some Mauritanian groups contend the civil registration process discriminates against these groups. Human Rights Watch findings only describe the experiences of those interviewed.

Several Mauritanian nongovernmental organizations view the civil registration process as a major impediment to academic progress. “When we try to help children transition to secondary school, we are told that applicants must provide proof of civil registration,” said Aminetou Ely, who runs a national nongovernmental organization offering primary school classes to children descended from slaves.

In 2015, UNICEF estimated that one third of Mauritanian children below age 5 had no civil registration and that only 40 percent of children from the poorest households were registered, compared with 85 percent of children from the wealthiest households.

“Mauritania’s biometric civil registration process clearly is keeping some children out of the classroom,” Whitson said. “The government should ensure that public schools do not exclude children on the basis of their civil registration status.”

The Civil Registration Process

Mauritania is a party to international human rights treaties safeguarding children’s right to education. Under article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified in 1991) and article 11 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ratified in 2005), Mauritania recognizes the right of the child to education and its need to “take measures to encourage regular attendance at schools and the reduction of drop-out rates.”

In 2016, the Interior and Education Ministries adopted a joint memorandum addressed to all regional governors providing that “no student shall be enrolled in a public or private educational institution unless the registration process has been completed in the manner stipulated by law.” The memorandum also provided that “no one shall be permitted to sit for national examinations or tests unless they have completed biometric registration procedures and possess a national identity card.”

The parents interviewed described the civil registration process variously as “confusing” and “time-consuming,” and criticized what they considered was a lack of proper guidance from the administration and the costs associated with obtaining the numerous documents required. Parents and children have not been identified by their full names to protect their privacy.

When adults cannot register, their children cannot register either. Adults lacking the required papers must apply for substitute documents such as birth or marriage certificates at the registration center closest to their place of birth.

Mamadou Anne, director of a civil registration center in the Nouakchott district of Sebkha, told Human Rights Watch that if someone lacks the required documents, a group of “notables” from their home town can certify their identity and the identity and marital status of their parents. For people born in remote areas, though, traveling to their place of birth can be costly, strenuous, and time-consuming.

A Mauritanian anthropologist who studied the civil registration process in 2016 reported that applicants faced hardship caused by the closure of several registration centers outside the capital, in addition to the common “incompetence, absenteeism, lack of training and attitude sometimes close to racism” of staff. Anne, the director of the Sebkha center, said that that the authorities had not closed these centers but rather were in the process of renovating them.

On October 19, 2017, Human Rights Watch raised with Interior Minister Ahmedou Ould Abdallah the difficulties that the lack of civil registration can create for getting an education. Ould Abdallah said that the administration provides work-arounds when families cannot meet certain formalities and asserted that “no student has been prevented from taking a national examination for want of civil registration.”

But the Human Rights Watch findings contradict this assertion. While some families found work-arounds, others reported that their children were either turned away from schools or prevented from sitting for the national examinations. All families said they had made numerous attempts to obtain civil registration documents for their children.

Children who are denied admission to public school effectively end up dropping out unless they can gain admission to a private school. Five of those interviewed said that they themselves or an immediate relative withdrew from public school because they lacked civil registration.

In December, Human Rights Watch sent questions based on its preliminary findings to the interior and education ministers. The authorities have not responded. A request by Human Rights Watch to meet with these ministers to discuss this matter during a three-week visit to Mauritania in January and February 2018 went unanswered.

To address the lack of data on the issue, the National Coalition of Mauritanian Organizations for Education is conducting a quantitative study assessing the nexus between rates of school enrollment and civil registration in the regions of Trarza, Guidimaka, and Hodh Ech Chargui.

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Themes: Acquisition by children, Discrimination, Ethnic/Racial/Religious, Birth Registration, ID Documents and Passports
Regions: Mauritania
Year: 2018