Published in The Open Society Foundations website on Jan. 22 ::
Too many people around the world are prevented from accessing legal and social protections because they lack a secure legal identity. From Kenya and the Dominican Republic to Macedonia and Nepal, insecure legal identity predicts and sustains social, economic, and political exclusion. Without the primary documentation needed for legal identification, basic rights and services like social allowances, health care, school enrollment, the right to vote, bank accounts, mobile phones, and the ability to move within and outside countries is often restricted or out of reach.
For these reasons, the right to a legal identity is fundamental to inclusive development. Identity documents serve as the very basis of social inclusion. It is thus essential for legal identity to be incorporated into the post-2015 development framework.
The lack of access to a legal identity is by no means confined to Dalits. It is a right denied to many. This story is illustrative of how governments, the international community, and local civil society organizations all over the world can work hand-in-hand to secure real change. A lack of legal identity hinders the ability of women and marginalized groups to exercise their civil and political rights and secure socio-economic benefits from the state. Administrative hurdles, poverty, limited awareness, and discriminatory legal provisions bar women and vulnerable groups everywhere from securing their citizenship or registering their marriage or child’s birth.
A survey conducted by Nepal’s National Dalit Commission reports that 35 percent of the Dalit community does not have citizenship certificates. Realizing the need and importance of legal identity documentation, the government of Nepal and several civil society organizations have collaborated to expand access to legal identity documents. The government has supported legislative reform, mobile camps, and public awareness campaigns. And several civil society groups provide valuable complementary activities including outreach, monitoring, and assistance with navigating state programs.
Beginning in 2011, the Dalit NGO Federation (DNF) mobilized and trained 35 community facilitators in five districts. These facilitators educate community members, help them obtain their documents, and collaborate with government officials to deliver stronger services at the community level. From 2011 to 2014, DNF facilitators were able to help over 40,000 Nepalese obtain citizenship certificates, add 20,000 citizens to the voter rolls, and extend state services greatly.
The Lawyers’ National Campaign for Elimination of Caste Discrimination (LANCAU) is another powerful example of civil society partnership. LANCAU has been working in the eight districts of the Far Western Region, one of the most under-developed regions of Nepal. Using community-based paralegals, the organization empowers local community members to combat caste-based discrimination and secure state services. It also broadens access to justice by providing legal information, helping victims approach justice and state institutions, and engaging government to secure legal identity documents. This direct support is complemented by systemic advocacy efforts with the government, as well as work to change public attitudes through more sensitive reporting by journalists.
The Legal Aid and Consultancy Center (LACC) in Nepal, a national-level civil society organization working on legal empowerment and justice reform, is also supporting innovative models to help people secure identity documents. Their model focuses on making people aware of the importance of identity documentation in Nepali society and works to empower people to attain their identity cards and associated entitlements. Sixty LACC-supported community paralegals join hands with government service providers to increase legal identity services and act as watchdogs and advocates.
Where collaboration falls short, LACC uses public interest litigation to challenge discriminatory provisions of citizenship. In conjunction with these efforts, LACC is advocating for government recognition of paralegals in Nepal’s legal system. The group has a strong system of documentation, and their experiences demonstrate that community paralegals play an important role in meaningfully securing identity for marginalized groups.
If the post-2015 development framework is to succeed in helping states reach the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, it must ensure that such communities can make the law work for them. Integrating strategies to secure and expand legal identity represents a major opportunity. As the experience of Nepal demonstrates, governments, civil society organizations, and communities themselves all have a significant role to play.