The Kenyan government has issued birth certificates to 600 children from the Shona community as part of a move towards ending statelessness for about 3 500 people.

The Shona community arrived in Kenya from Zimbabwe as Christian missionaries in the 1960s. They carried Rhodesian passports and were registered as British subjects.

Many of them later missed an opportunity to register as Kenyans, rendering them stateless.

After Kenya’s independence in 1963, they had a two-year window to register as Kenyans, which many missed, rendering them stateless.

Emma, a third generation Shona was born in Kenya in 1986. Her parents died when she was young and together with her siblings, she was raised by her grandmother.

Without a birth certificate, accessing education was a struggle. Her grandmother could not afford private schools that would sometimes be more lenient. So, like most young girls in the community, Emma stayed home and got married as a teenager.

“Things will change. With this piece of paper, it will be easier for the community members to move to different places, and they can make a life for themselves. Just walking around with that paper will help,” said Emma Muguni, who received certificates for her six children.

Without proof of nationality, the Shona and other stateless communities were unable to fully access basic rights like education or health insurance.

They could not travel, own property, be formally employed or access financial services, among other rights enjoyed by Kenyan citizens.

The move by the government to issue birth certificates has been hailed as an important step towards ending statelessness for the community of around 3,500, half of whom are aged under 18.

“I had very high hopes, but I never imagined this day would come and that we would be as happy as we are today. This day has brought so much happiness and it shows that there is progress and a big step has been made here,” said Zephaniah Muungani, a Shona community leader.

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR is working with the government and civil society in Kenya to resolve statelessness.

In 2016, around 4,000 Makonde were recognized as the 43rd tribe of Kenya, a major breakthrough.

“The fact of having large statelessness communities, it actually undermines the overall social goals. You can’t have the development goals that you aim for if pockets of the population are disabled from aspiring to those goals because of the fact that they cannot access nationality. You can’t have universal healthcare for example, if sections of the population cannot access healthcare because of their citizenship challenges. I believe now there is a genuine commitment on the part of the government, because the government realizes it has nothing to lose by giving citizenship to stateless people who are found on Kenyan territory and it has a lot to gain on the contrary,” said George Kegoro, executive director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission.

An estimated 18 500 stateless people currently live in Kenya. This includes different groups of stateless people of Pemba and Shona origin, as well as groups of individuals of Burundian, Congolese, Indian and Rwandan descent.