Asia

Papua New Guinea’s undocumented children face ‘perfect storm of vulnerability’


When 11-year-old Mary’s mother remarried after her husband’s death, Mary was left in the care of an aunt who exploited her.

Her aunt sent Mary out on to the streets of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital, to sell small goods and forced her to slave at domestic work around the house. Mary has never been to school and is illiterate.

Mary recently arrived at Life PNG Care, a children’s welfare non-profit organisation with a care centre based in Gerehu in the city centre, which helps children with food and shelter. She will be home schooled until she is ready to enter formal education.

One of the reasons Mary slipped through the cracks until now is that she, like most children in PNG, has no official identity. The PNG government estimates that just 15% of children in the country have had their births officially registered. This compares to 75% of births worldwide and 88% in neighbouring Solomon Islands.

Without this documentation, exploitation and trafficking are far easier.

“We are currently looking after about 45 children,” said Collin Pake, founder and director of Life PNG Care. “But we have done our own surveys in Port Moresby and we estimate there are about 20,000 homeless children in the city. About 70% of the children in our care don’t have birth certificates and don’t know their birth dates. When we ask what their age is, they just guess.”

Of the 500 children aged one to 12 in the care of another welfare organisation, PNG Hope for Poor Kids Care in Port Moresby, just 20 had birth certificates, said Martin Piason, its founder and chairman.

Leisha Lister, an international law and justice consultant in Canberra, said the situation was “terrifying for children”.

“Children who don’t have any legal identity documents are very easily trafficked, moved on and new documents created for them. A birth certificate prevents the child from being trafficked by someone who isn’t a family member. It’s the foundation for protecting children.”

A child sitting on an adult’s lap
Child trafficking has been identified as an issue of concern in Papua New Guinea, particularly for children living on the streets. Photograph: Helen Davidson

Fiu Williame-Igara, country director for Save the Children, said the low rate of birth registration was a key factor that left children vulnerable in PNG. “This creates a perfect storm for children’s vulnerability when compounded with widespread poverty, growing squatter settlements in urban areas, large numbers of people living in one household, parents neglecting their children and peer pressure.”

Government reports identify child trafficking as an issue of concern in the country and a survey of children in Port Moresby in 2012 by the International Labour Organisation showed a high prevalence of child labour and sexual exploitation among children living on the streets of the capital. The organisation reported that 68% of children surveyed were in hazardous work, 43% were in commercial sex work and 47% had never been to school.

“It’s difficult to overstate the devastating social, mental and physical health impacts on children who suffer neglect, abuse or exploitation,” Williame-Igara said.

In PNG, infants born outside of urban centres and health facilities often miss out on a birth certificate.

“Sixty per cent of [births each year] are village home births, virtually none of which are registered at the government registry of births and deaths,” says Prof Glen Mola, head of obstetrics and gynaecology at Port Moresby general hospital.

“Of the 40% of births that occur in health facilities, our anecdotal evidence is that less than 10% of parents go to the registry office to register the birth of their child.”

Williame-Igara said: “It’s not made clear to parents and families that birth registration is mandatory and, with 80% of the population living in rural or remote communities, many face difficulties in reaching the nearest government station to register a new birth.”

However, PNG’s civil registry office has also been ineffective for years. It was assessed as “dysfunctional” by leading regional group SPC in 2014.

Two years ago, the government launched a national action plan and aims to train and resource health staff and services to boost registration. It’s a huge challenge given the country’s overstretched health system – already coping with the pandemic and disease burdens, such as tuberculosis and diabetes, and weak reach into distant provincial areas.

Lister emphasised that, among a raft of measures needed, registration should be made easier, especially for rural families and the illiterate, fees eliminated and information about how and why obtaining a birth certificate is important disseminated throughout the country.

But Magalu Banagi, program manager at City Mission PNG, said the responsibility laid with parents as well. “We need to train the parents. The parents are not playing their roles and taking responsibility.”



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