The following article outlines real life stories collect by Trinity Project field workers. Each case outlines the importance of legal registration and protections for vulnerable persons, and how complicated it can be to backdate registration.
Although these cases can seem quite upsetting, in every instance, Trinity has since supported beneficiaries; providing them with legal advice and support; advocating on their behalves; and directing them towards the help they need.
Sizwile was the only girl in a large family. Her family lived happily in a small village, supported by the small local supermarket her father ran. Unfortunately, this all began to change when both her parents died, while Sizwile was only twelve years old.
Sizwile’s parents never wrote a will, codifying how to share their estate when they passed. Her family and community took advantage of this, and her eldest brother inherited everything. They left Sizwile without a penny, with those around her believing that as a young girl she had no say in such decisions, and expecting her to do nothing but marry and move away anyway. With this destiny decided for her and living in poverty, Sizwile was forced to drop out of school, and was married off to an older widower by the age of sixteen.
At first, she viewed her husband as her savior, rescuing her from a life of poverty and suffering. However as the years passed, he became increasingly abuse and controlling. Without access to contraception or sexual autonomy, Sizwile had five children by the age of twenty-two. In just ten years, her life had been transformed from an educated, happy child to an abused and impoverished wife and mother, dependent entirely on her husband.
There are many tragedies that left Sizwile in this position, not least the institutional sexism that silences girl-childen and leaves them vulnerable to this kind of abuse and exploitation. However it is clear that legal registration and protections, such as wills, can help young women in this position, and could have protected Sizwile from this fate.
Mrs Makhathini is the guardian of two childen, Nokuthaba and Nqobile. These children have been abandoned by both parents and both sides of the family, who are embittered by disputes between them and have forgotten to prioritise the children.
The children were left to her as infants by their father, who migrated to South Africa to find work. The mother also went to South Africa, but has since cut ties with the father and her family, and her whereabouts are no longer known. Mrs Makhathini understood the importance of registering the two children in her care, so that they could access education, healthcare and a host of other rights and entitlements. However, the situation that the parents and the family have left behind has made this incredibly difficult.
You need both parent’s documents to register a child. The father has made his documents available, but without being able to contact the mother, Mrs Makhathini was dependent on extended family on the mother’s side to access these documents. The two children’s maternal relatives have been uncooperative, claiming that the father still owes them ‘lobola’ (dowry) and refusing to support his children’s registration until this is resolved. Legally, neither guardians nor paternal relatives are allowed to register children. So without the mother or support of maternal relatives, Mrs Makhathini is at an impasse and the children are left unprotected and unacknowledged by the state.
The bitterness between the parents and their extended relatives surrounding separation and lobola is all too common, but in this case it has led to a violation of the two children’s rights. Every child has the right, enshrined in law, to birth registration, and the many public services this provides access to. Nokuthaba and Nqobile are being denied this, by their own family members. This leaves them unrecognised as persons by the Zimbabwean government: unable to attend school, sit public exams or access healthcare, and more vulnerable to child marriage or child labour. We desperately need legal change, to make registration more accessible for complex cases like this, and an increased awareness in communities to understand the importance of children’s rights and registration, and always prioritise this.
Birth registration can become a cyclical issue. Lubelihle had a difficult upbringing, financially insecure and was never registered by her parents. As a result of this background, she was forced to drop out of school and married when she was just a teenager. Early in the marriage she gave birth to a son, but not long after her husband abandoned her. Since then, she has been forced to work low-paid, insecure jobs just to support her and her child. Lubehlile was never taught the importance of registration – and more than this, she has to work several jobs and still barely meets the costs of rent, food and other bills, let alone taking on the expense of a complicated registration case. Since she is unregistered, she could not give birth in a public clinic or hospital. There is no state record of her, her former husband, or her childbirth. As a result, it would be very difficult, drawn-out and costly to register her son.
Whilst it is understandable that Lubelihle has little time or money to prioritise registration, this is already starting to impact on her son. He was meant to begin nursery two years ago, and has not been allowed a place as he is unregistered. He has also been denied healthcare at the local clinic. There is a clear cycle of children being born into complicated, insecure backgrounds, without proper access to education, healthcare, or other legal protections – which in turn makes them far more likely to expose their children to the same fate. Some parents do not know the importance of registration; others do, but still cannot afford or access it. Either way, vulnerable families are far more likely to perpetuate non-registration.
Gogo is a grandmother, who approached the project for advice about registering her grandchildren. Gogo’s son migrated to South Africa with his wife, where they had two sons. Her son was then arrested and imprisoned, leaving his wife alone with her two children. She buckled under the pressure of working and raising two children alone, and one day broke down and left the younger son, a newborn baby, in a rubbish bin.
Fortunately, one of the neighbours discovered this, and arranged for both sons to be smuggled back to Zimbabwe to live with their grandmother, Gogo. After this point, the mother fled and Gogo has lost contact with her. Gogo was keen to register the two children in her care, fully aware of the importance of registering them so they could access healthcare and education. However, when she came to the registrar she realized the complexity of the case. Neither child had been registered in South Africa where they were actually born, then they were illegally smuggled back into Zimbabwe, and had been separated from both their parents with no way of accessing either parent’s legal documents.
Gogo had researched the registration process, and had her faith restored when she realized that the extended maternal relatives could assist her and get the two children registered. Unfortunately, these relatives were uncooperative. They believed Gogo and her son had caused them to lose touch with their own daughter, the mother of the children, and rejected the opportunity to support Gogo or the two boys. Since then, Trinity officers have visited these relatives as mediators, and explained the importance of registration. We are optimistic this will help progress the case. This case again demonstrates how complicated the registration process is, and how poorly it protects unconventional or vulnerable families. Even with Gogo fighting for her grandchildren to fulfil their rights, it is an uphill battle.
As each of these cases show, registration is often overlooked at the best of times, and downright impossible when cases get more complex. There is much need for third parties, such as Trinity, to mediate between families, local registrars and other relevant institutions, and lawmakers, to smooth the registration process. The good news is that Trinity has grown to a national figure in the past 5 years, changing laws, raising awareness, and supporting thousands of individuals. Trinity is absolutely vital, helping disadvantaged and vulnerable young people to fulfil the rights they should have, just by virtue of being born.
Stories collected and reported by Trinity Project field officers
Written by Hannah O’Riordan, ZET Operations Manager