By Maina Waruru
NAIROBI, Kenya - Happiness Kapota will remember forever the day when her children lined up in Nairobi to receive their birth certificates.
Joyce, Caleb and Sidet Moyo were among the first children from Kenya's stateless Shona group to receive the government-issued certificates, which will give them opportunities and rights long denied to the Shona.
The day was particularly poignant for Kapota, 25, because she was barred from sitting a key school exam for lack of documents, forcing her to drop out at 15.
"My teachers tried to help but there's nothing they could do, so I dropped out and became a housemaid since we were very poor," Kapota told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding she hoped to return to school one day.
Kenya's move to end the plight of the Shona comes amid a global campaign to eradicate statelessness thought to affect an estimated 10 million people worldwide who are not recognised as nationals by any country.
Kenya sent a high-level delegation to a major intergovernmental meeting in Geneva on Monday to discuss progress at the midpoint of the #Ibelong campaign, ahead of a 2024 deadline.
A person may be stateless as a result of discrimination based on ethnicity, religion or gender, the transfer of territory between states, or conflicting nationality laws.
Stateless people often lack documentation necessary to attend school, open a bank account, get a job, passport or mobile phone, or enter government buildings, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).
The 3,500-strong stateless Shona community has been in Kenya for more than 50 years, many of them born and raised there, but they are not recognised as Kenyan nationals and have no official status in Zimbabwe from where they arrived in the 1960s.
Kapota's children were among 600 young Shona who received their birth certificates at a ceremony in August, said Wanja Munaita, Kenya's UNHCR officer on statelessness.
About 2,000 adults have also applied and are waiting for their documents to be processed, she added.
Kenya set a precedent two years ago when it awarded citizenship to another stateless group, the Makonde, originally from Mozambique, ending 80 years of statelessness for its 8,000 people.
Oliver Muregerera, a community leader from the Shona's Gospel of God Church, said his people have faced widespread discrimination.
"We have a lived a life of poverty and squalor since without documents (we) cannot secure a good job, own property or access critical government services," said Muregerera.
Shumarry Maleon, a government assistant director of registration, said all Shona would be issued with birth certificates.
But while this is an important step it does not guarantee the Shona citizenship, a recognition President Uhuru Kenyatta promised in 2017.
Kenya has an estimated 18,500 stateless people.
George Kegoro of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission said the country could not say it was on course to meet social goals such as improved access to education and health while failing to recognise part of its population as citizens.
Kegoro, the charity's executive director, said birth certificates were not enough and it was crucial to keep up pressure until the community received formal recognition.
Kenya hopes to get a clearer picture of its stateless population when the results of a national census conducted in August are made public next year.
"We have been told that the national census has a provision to capture data on stateless people which is important, and UNHCR is appealing to all stateless people in Kenya to come out and identify themselves during the exercise," said the UNHCR's Munaita.
African states have increasingly become aware that statelessness is a major problem.
A 2017 declaration by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), a grouping of 15 countries, highlighted the political will of its member states to tackle the issue.
The African Court on Human and People's Rights ruled in 2018 that Tanzania arbitrarily deprived a man of Tanzanian citizenship and ordered the government to update its legislation, potentially paving the way for other countries to follow suit.