Women shakes hand man presenter her a birth certificate for her baby at a mobile birth registration exercise.
Shona mother receives birth certificate for her baby at a mobile birth registration exercise in June. Photo: UNHCR

Documentation opens doors for Kenya's stateless Shona community

Anna Cahill|Published 19. Sep 2019
Ending statelessness by 2024 is an ambitious goal, but NORCAP expert Sadiq Boateng is closing the gap with efforts to recognise Kenya’s stateless Shona people.

In the 1960s, a group of Zimbabwean missionaries from the Shona ethnic group immigrated to Kenya. Many settled and remain in and near Nairobi where they established the Gospel og God Church. They have homes, livelihoods and generations of family born and raised in Kenya. What they still don't have is citizenship.

Without legal nationalities, the Shona community in Kenya is stateless.

"A stateless person does not have legal documents. Many lack birth certificates, too. This means they live undignified lives and cannot reach their full potential at all," says information management specialist Sadiq Boateng. He is a NORCAP expert deployed with UNHCR in Nairobi.

Without citizenship, the Shona are denied the basic rights enjoyed by legal Kenyans. According to Boateng, they miss out on opportunities to join primary school, attend university and access medical services in Kenya. This can have particularly grave consequences for pregnant women who require specialised medical care.

Boateng holding the baby of two stateless Shona parents.
Boateng holding the baby of two stateless Shona parents. The baby had no birth registration. Photo: Sadiq Boateng


Gaining awareness of the problem 

Since stateless people live at the margins of society, excluded from education, political participation, marriage and banking, it is often difficult to get a grasp of how many actually exist. Even when governments are in favour of granting citizenship to stateless residents, identifying the entire population in question is a major challenge.

The Kenyan government has expressed willingness to register the Shona as Kenyan citizens, but to make this a reality, a length verification process is needed. Boateng and UNHCR Kenya began this process over the summer with a research project called the Shona study. The study aimed to survey Kenya's Shona population to identify the number of Shona and the types of documents they currently possess. Findings from the study would inform the recommendations to the Kenyan government about future citizenship registration.

"For the Shona study, my role has so far been supporting the development of the methods to collect data, training of field staff, and assisting in analysing the distributing the data. I have also attended meetings with the national authorities where we presented preliminary results of the study," reports Boateng.

First step: birth certificates

One early result of the study was the finding that 10 per cent of Shona children five years old or younger had a birth certificate. Advocacy based on this finding led to a mobile birth registration exercise for the Shona in June, where 600 children were registered. With a birth certificate, they will have access to primary education and a basis for the nationality registration process.

"Birth registration is important since it gives the very first level of identity to most children and, though not a proof of nationality, it helps to be counted as being born in the country," says Boateng.

Mother posing, smiling with her baby and holding a the child's birth certificate.
Mother secures a birth certificate for her child at the mobile birth registration exercise in June. Photo: UNHCR


Since the birth registration exercise, the Shona study has been completed and advocacy based on its results has led to more positive developments.

In late August, the Kenyan government established a National Taskforce for the Identification and Registration of Eligible Stateless Persons as Kenyan Citizens. The taskforce will have a one-year mandate and work closely with UNHCR.

While significant work still lies ahead, Boateng is hopeful that these direct government interventions, combined with further advocacy based on the results of the completed Shona study, will eventually result in the legal recognition of the stateless Shona living in Kenya.  

Ending statelessness by 2024

Recognising Kenya's Shona community as legal citizens means one step closer to reaching the UN goal to end statelessness by 2024. Realising this ambitions goal will, however require more capacity to understand the magnitude and causes of statelessness.

"Capacity building has to continue," urges Boateng. "Statelessness is very complex. Those charged with resolving it need to know what it is before they can resolve it. We need to know who they [the stateless people] are, their numbers, history, locations and living conditions. I am optimistic that a lot can be achieved within the next five years. It really starts with the fundamental steps of creating awareness of the problem and making sure all levels of government and civil society know about the issues."

To assist in this effort, NORCAP is providing continued support to UNHCR as part of a larger frame on strengthening humanitarian action through improved data, statistics and information management financed by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (NMFA) and implemented in partnership with Statistics Norway, UN agencies and the joint IDP Profiling Service (IPS).

This year, support from the NMFA has provided opportunities to strengthen these partnerships and consolidate NORCAP's efforts. Many resulting projects directly or indirectly strengthen and develop national data and statistical systems linking humanitarian and development efforts.

This work is also in line with Norway's humanitarian strategy to promote responsible and efficient use of data and statistics for evidence-based decision-making, planning and programming in humanitarian response.