By Robert Tapfumaneyi
The issue of access to identity documents for Zimbabwean women is a cause for concern.
Many women in Zimbabwe face numerous challenges accessing identity documents. These challenges range from unaffordable charges, difficult attitude of the employees at the registry offices and bureaucratic hurdles. The processes of acquiring documents are by and large difficult for people trying to access identity documents for the first time and for those who are trying to replace lost, stolen, or damaged documents. These difficulties increase when they are faced by women.
It is important to note that in Zimbabwe, an individual has the right to be in possession of seven identity documents throughout their lifetime. These documents are a birth confirmation record, a birth certificate, an identity card, a passport, a driver’s license, a marriage certificate and a death certificate.
Challenges in accessing identity documents
According to a Research Advocacy Unity (RAU) report, many women say the fees set for accessing identity documents are generally too high and therefore beyond their reach.
It also emerged in all the focus groups featured in the report that the employees at the Registrar-General’s (RG) office are largely rude and unhelpful. The treatment reported ranged from general neglect and ignoring of the public seeking assistance, to outright rude remarks directed at individuals.
“We have a big challenge with the people at the RG’s office; they neither acknowledge people’s presence nor treat others in a respectful manner when people are making enquiries. They are not working the way they should as people who work with the public,” said one woman.
Bureaucracy blocks access to identity documents
Bureaucratic procedures in getting some identity documents were considered a challenge by most of the women. The women noted that the office of the RG has its own set of rules and requirements, varying from place to place, which causes confusion as women do not know exactly what they need to get identity documents. For example, in some areas proof of residence is required while in others it is not.
Single women face unique difficulties accessing birth certificates for their children. This is true despite the existence of decisions from the courts allowing single mothers to get birth certificates for their children in their names should the father refuse to give the child his name. In some areas, it is easy for single mothers to get birth certificates for their children using their maiden name while in other areas they are required to bring the father of the child. But this is against the law, which clearly states that women can get birth certificates for their children without the father should they want to. As a result, some single mothers cannot acquire birth certificates for their children without the father, leaving the children vulnerable and unable to access certain rights, such as that of a passport.
“I wanted to get a passport for my child but they wanted me to bring proof of residence. I do not own a property. The house I live in belongs to my father but he passed away before changing the title deeds from the previous owner’s name into his name. I do not know how to resolve this issue so I can get a passport for my child” said another female focus group interviewee.
Corruption and access to identity documents
The women bemoaned the levels of corruption that have plagued the system of the issuance of identity documents. The forms of corruption reported included individuals selling queue positions, selling access to a registration officer, and even selling the right to be acknowledged and served within the RG’s office. Most of the corruption was linked to individuals promising swift and speedy processing of documents. The women’s assertions substantiate previous reports in the media about the levels of corruption witnessed at the RG’s office
One woman said: “They let people into their offices through the back door instead of following the queues…Some people charge for a letter of proof of residence. They are agents for those who are inside the offices so they get more money from all the people.”
The obvious backwardness of the system in place presents a major problem for many women in accessing identity documents.
One woman asked: “Why is it that if you give birth in Harare and you move to Gweru you are told to take a birth certificate where the child was born and not where you will be residing? Can the RG not have a computerised system which is able to respond to the needs of every individual wherever they may be?”
Birth records are a pre-requisite for the acquisition of birth certificates. Birth records give: proof of the place where a child was born; the hospital and the ward where the child was born, the identity of the delivery nurse, as well as the name of the mother, and the name given to the child upon birth. This requirement is very important as it guards against the theft of children and illegal adoptions. However, many women are failing to get these birth records, not because they are not the true mothers of their babies but because they are failing to pay maternity fees. In many urban centres, women are detained in hospitals for long periods of time after delivering their babies for failing to pay bills. When they are eventually released, the child’s birth record is withheld until they pay off the amount owing in full. One woman had this to say: “Birth records are supposed to be taken within six weeks after giving birth for free. Some people do not manage to get them at that time because they will be owing hospital fees. After the six week period lapses, they will have to pay for the birth record. Some of these things can happen but some people want a lot of bribes at the same time.”
Among the women that participated in the focus group discussions, the following sentiments were raised concerning some of the challenges women face in replacing lost, damaged, or stolen documents: “My husband was from Mozambique. I lost his death certificate in a fire when my house was burnt. As a result I had to get my son’s birth certificate in my name. Changing that name to the father’s name is a very difficult process as I have no way of accessing records to his identity. I have tried getting a replacement of my husband’s death certificate but have failed.”
Most women, unaware that they can get children’s birth certificates in their name, raise their children without this important identity document simply because the father would have refused to cooperate.
Should they want to give the child the father’s surname, at the R-G’s office the women are required to bring the father of the child and two witnesses in order to get the birth certificate. This then deters the women from accessing the birth certificate as they cannot get all five people involved; namely the mother, the father, the child, and the two witnesses in one place at the same time. Older women, left behind with their orphaned grandchildren, also face similar serious challenges as the fathers may have run away or denied responsibility, and they cannot get the witnesses required to acquire the birth certificates.
Some of the women in the focus group discussions stated that the ability to make the birth certificate in their own name remains a problem. The women explained that the issue is not just about giving the child a birth certificate, but about giving them their true identity. Some women face challenges from society in general, or their families in particular, should they decide to give the child an identity that does not show the father. Sometimes, children who are old enough to understand the implications may refuse to adopt the mother’s name.
The women in the focus group reported that the law declining women the right to pass on their citizenship to their foreign husbands was one of the main factors affecting children’s access to identity documents. In most cases, if the spouse is a foreigner they have to acquire Zimbabwean citizenship first in order to give the child a Zimbabwean identity. The acquisition of such citizenship status is a lengthy and costly process hence prejudicing the child’s ability to possess an identity. In one case, the R-G unilaterally revoked the citizenship of a Zimbabwean businessman and seized his passport declaring him no longer a Zimbabwean citizen. However, he was ordered to restore it by the courts.
All these cases point to the clear abuse of power that the discretionary powers the RG holds regarding citizenship rights.
Why is citizenship so important?
Citizenship determines the legal status of individuals within a state and shapes their relationship with the government, setting out the parameters of an individual’s civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights and competence. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) says “[e]veryone has the right to a nationality” and that “[n]o one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.”
In Zimbabwe, the state does not give citizenship to individuals simply because they are residents or even because they are born here. By denying many people citizenship, the state is capitalising on the weaknesses of the international world order which permits differential treatment between citizens and non-citizens when it comes to matters of voting and citizen participation in politics.
Since the enactment of the Amendment to the Citizenship Act many people have faced numerous challenges acquiring citizenship. As was pointed out in this report, citizenship is usually accorded to individuals through three means; birth, descent, or naturalisation. By birth, it means that, if an individual is born in a certain country, they are citizens of that country. In Zimbabwe, however, these usually predictable patterns of acquiring citizenship are not as predictable, posing the question of who is or who is not entitled to Zimbabwean citizenship.
The answer to that remains a mystery to all except the office of the RG, which is the responsible authority for overseeing matters of identity and citizenship.