Filomena Mendonca gave birth to all five of her children at home in the village of Fatulmau, high up in the mountains of Timor-Leste, without registering their births. “The hospital is very far away. I didn’t feel there was a problem so I just stayed at home,” said the 30-year-old.
With the closest town of Alieu a half hour drive down a sometimes impassable dirt road, Fatulmau is relatively isolated, and Mendonca did not understand the importance of birth certificates.
Seventy-eight percent of women in Timor-Leste, a half-island nation of 1.1 million people, do not give birth in a health facility, and according to official 2010 figures, up to 70 percent of under-five children do not have a birth certificate.
However, things may be changing.
Last year, Mendonca registered all her children, as did a number of other families in the village. “The village chief came to explain why we should register our children, and that it’s important for when the children need to register for school.”
Mendonca’s children are part of a community-run playgroup supported by international NGO Plan International, where most of the 25 members now have birth certificates.
In 2011 Plan International and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) launched a campaign to achieve universal birth registration in two of the country’s 13 districts, Alieu and Los Palos, working with the government to providing training at the village level and raising awareness in the community.
Plan International resources mobilization manager Gashaw Dagnew Kebede said birth registration is vital to provide children with basic, at times life-saving, services.
“The government has to provide health, education and other social services so if children are registered with a birth certificate it’s easy to plan for the future.”
Birth certificates and protection
Birth certificates were also important to protect children in the courts from being mistreated, especially in cases of sexual abuse, child labour and trafficking.
“If children are mistreated or abused it’s sometimes very difficult to prove whether they are really children or adults because they don’t have birth certificates,” Kebede said.
But despite government and NGO efforts to boost birth registrations in rural areas, many people still don’t understand their importance.
“We’ve only been an independent country for 10 years and we’ve been working on child rights for five years, so we still need to bring more awareness to the community in this area,” National Child Rights Commissioner Adalgisa Ximenes told IRIN.
Timor-Leste voted for independence in a UN sponsored referendum in 1999 following a protracted bloody separatist struggle with neighbouring Indonesia, officially becoming independent in 2002. The government started registering births in 2004.
In 2011 a change in the registration process made it possible for people to register births through the village chief, at a hospital or church. Previously, people could only register at district offices or in the capital, Dili.
“I hope that as people become more aware, they won’t need NGOs to come to them to register their children. They will have the awareness to go and register their children on their own,” said Ximenes.
The government’s national director of birth registration Victor da Costa Neto said the registration process initially faced problems.
“At that time the number of people registered was very low; we had a lack of staff and all documents needed to be signed by the national director.”
Considerable progress has been made since then, with an additional 216,000 birth certificates for both children and adults issued in 2011, said Neto, explaining that everything is done manually as the government does not yet have a computerized database.
According to the 2011 State of the World's Midwifery report, there are an estimated 43,000 births per year in Timor-Leste.