Burundi: How a piece of paper can shape your life

Ornella fights to further her education even though she lacks the required administrative documents.

September 26, 2022 by Dominique Ngoma Nkenzo, Education Out Loud RMU– West & Central Africa
5 minutes read
Without a birth certificate it is a struggle for 18 year old Ornella to continue her education. Credit: BAFASHEBIGE
Without a birth certificate it is a struggle for 18 year old Ornella to continue her education.

This story was originally published on Education Out Loud’s website.

“In the regions with high dropout rates, precisely in Gitega, we noticed that many children of unknown fathers end up leaving school as they lack a birth certificate.”

Dénise Kandondo, National coordinator, Bafashebige

Ornella, an 18-year-old girl from Gitega province in central Burundi, has been struggling to stay in school because she does not have a birth certificate. She was fortunate to attend school at all, as a birth certificate is an administrative requirement for enrollment.

Ornella is from a single-parent home and was raised by her mother. She knew her father, but he did not spend much time with him because he had another household, with a wife and children.

Even though Ornella’s father did acknowledge her as his daughter, he neglected to register her birth and died before providing the administrative documentation. In Burundi, only fathers have the right the register their newborn children. The father’s family are allowed to register the child, but in Ornella’s case, they refused to be involved in her life. Consequently, she has grown up without a birth certificate.

Thanks to her mother’s determination, she was able to attend elementary and secondary school in spite of this legislation. However, the issue became a serious stumbling block when Ornella needed to register to write the state-organized senior high school exam, as candidates are required to submit their complete files including their birth certificates to do so.

“In Burundi you need a birth certificate to enroll in school. You need it to register for exams, you need it to apply for secondary and tertiary education, to vote and to apply for a decent job,” explains Dénise Kandondo, national coordinator at Education for All Coalition (EFAC), Bafashebige. “We know this. Yet we have no systems in place to secure birth certificates for those thousands of children whose fathers fail to register them properly when they are born,” she adds.

Bafashebige steps in to help

In July 2021, Bafashebige set up a regional chapter in Gitega, where Ornella lives. The coalition is an Education Out Loud partner.

Thanks to funding from Education Out Loud, the coalition has been able to decentralize its activities to the community level, explains Kandondo. Parents and community members are becoming aware of the work of the Coalition.

“They are now requesting intervention more often, especially in terms of the right to education.” She says that communities know about their interventions because the Coalition is part of a regional consultation framework, which is composed of the governors of Gitega, Mwaro, Muramvya and Karuzi provinces, as well as education officials.

“This is how we heard about the challenge faced by Ornella, a brilliant student who was refused access to higher education by the provincial education authorities,” Kandondo explains.

Ornella reported her issue to the head of the regional chapter, who then wrote a letter to the coalition, which in turn sent a letter to the Ministry of Education to advocate for her in this matter.

The coalition Bafashebige succeeded in providing the administrative documentation that needed to be added to Ornella’s school file to give her access to her class and to write the exam.

Ornella wrote the exam and graduated! But her battle continues as the document is temporary. Ornella is not entitled to her certificate that would allow her to go on to higher education and she now needs to be registered for tertiary education.

“Helping Ornella to access her tertiary studies is an ongoing process,” says Kandondo. “The fact that the law requires her to have a birth certificate to further her education is a real challenge and this requirement cannot be dodged forever. Ornella is now 18, so she can appeal to the court to assert her right, as a citizen of Burundi, to be provided with the necessary documents. The coalition will support her throughout this process,” adds Kandondo.

There are many other girls in Ornella’s position

Unfortunately, Ornella’s story is not an isolated case, Kandondo notes. “During a study to produce a database on marginalized and vulnerable groups in the regions with high dropout rates, we noticed something that we had not perceived before: many children of unknown fathers end up leaving school as they lack a birth certificate.”

“Though Ornella has received support, many other children in her situation drop out and end up in child labor and early marriage,” says Kandondo. “They are vulnerable to abuse and rape and as a result the cycle is perpetuated; more children of unknown fathers are born.”

"My story could help other children who face a situation like mine," says Ornella. And it seems that her struggle has indeed inspired others in her community. Some girls who had dropped out of school due to unplanned pregnancies have sought help and guidance from the Coalition.

“We now have further testimonies from children facing challenges at school. They are being marginalized, mocked by schoolmates, and denied access to higher education by local authorities due to the policy that only fathers may register their child’s birth. We are advocating for the amendment of this law and of the policy for school registrations,” says Kandondo.

There is some progress in this regard. The coalition has gained the trust of the Ministry of Education and, after signing a partnership agreement, they were given strategic space as a key partner in educational policymaking. Integration into the education planning process has already enabled them to advocate for the preservation of free education.

But they also acknowledge the challenges ahead. “Unfortunately, young mothers tend to hide the fact that their children are not recognized by their fathers, in an attempt to avoid being stigmatized. The unintended consequence is that when their children are required to produce their birth certificates at senior high school, they drop out. We will also need to advocate for a change in behavior. Not enough attention is given to this issue. Ornella’s situation has brought this to light as we continue to advocate for this policy review and for a change in behavior in the communities,” Kandondo concludes.

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Sub-Saharan Africa: Burundi

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