For the past three weeks, I have been in the process of trying to get my Brazilian documents in order. As the daughter of a Brazilian, I am automatically a citizen, and have a Brazilian passport, however, I do not have a Brazilian birth certificate, Social Security card, a voting card, or an Identity Card, all important documents for living in Brazil.
And the fact is, I’m not alone. Over 600,000 people in Brazil live without these documents. The majority of these people are from the Northeast, the poorest region of the country. There are also large concentrations in states like Mato Gross do Sul, Roraima and Amazonas, because of the extensive indigenous and riverside populations living there.
However, their reasons are much different than mine. Having been born outside of the country, I never got around to getting these documents until now, and with my passport I am a fully registered citizen. These people are not. Without a birth certificate, children can’t go to the doctor, or even to school. They can’t receive aid from the country in the form of the Bolsa Familia–a program implemented by Lula which provides stipends to families living under a certain poverty line, on the condition that their children go to school regularly. Brazil has many social programs that go towards supporting lower class families, yet there are thousands of people who cannot benefit from them. For example, Brazil’s HIV/AIDS program is known world-wide as having seriously reduced the rate of infection and death by providing free anti-retroviral drugs to any Brazilian citizen who is registered as HIV positive. However, in order to benefit from this program, one has to be a documented Brazilian citizen, and register their HIV status with the government. And often, the poorest people in Brazil, those most likely to be living without a birth certificate, are the ones most vulnerable to contracting AIDS. So how efficient is a program that doesn’t reach 600,000 people?
The birth certificate here in Brazil is the first step to obtaining all sorts of other documents that allow you to be a fully participating citizen in society. Without these, one can’t work (except through informal means), go to school, or even vote. These people essentially don’t exist in the eyes of the government, and therefore can receive no help from it. Equally importantly, they can receive no protection. One has no rights. If a woman is raped, and has no documents, the government can do nothing to help her. And of course, the people who do not have their birth certificate are often more likely to be involved in drug trafficking and forced sex work.
Just to give you an idea of how important documents are here in Brazil, I am asked for the equivalent of my Social Security number every time I go to the doctor. When I signed up for a cell phone plan. When I buy bus tickets. When I buy movie tickets. When I rent movies. Because I am a foreigner as well as a Brazilian, they usually let it slide, or just take my cousin’s number instead. But if it weren’t for that, I would be excluded from accessing medical care, to a major mode of communication, the cheapest mode of transportation. I wouldn’t even be able to see a movie.
So why are there so many people without documents? What boundaries are stopping them? Registering a child is free, so what’s the big deal?
Well, most people argue that it’s more about physical access than financial access (although they kind of end up being the same thing). Many undocumented Brazilians live in very rural towns where the nearest Office of Registration might be hours away. Tickets to get there can be expensive. Taking at least a day off of work to do it is expensive. Other families have their children in one town and then migrate, making the process more complicated. Sometimes families don’t know how important the documentation is.
In response to all this, the Brazilian government recently started a television campaign to encourage mothers to register their children soon after birth. I caught this commercial on TV the other day, and was surprised to hear Ivete Sangalo singing “Get a certidão de nascimento (birth certificate) out of pride for being Brazilian!” I was pleasantly surprised to see it, considering that I had plans for the next day to make my third attempt to do just that.
That third attempt turned did not turn out to be my last. So imagine how ironic it was for me to see a station at the base of Vidigal (a recently pacified favela here in Rio) set up for people to register and get their Birth Certificates. It was so simple, they could just go up, get their photo taken, provide a few documents, and be done. I was secretly a tad resentful that the process I have to go through isn’t so simple, but more importantly, I was excited to see the Rio government making strides at combating this problem.
It is clear that this lack of documentation is the ultimate form of marginalization in Brazilian society. Without legal rights to protection or support, one is a Brazilian citizen without any of the benefits that come with that. It makes me think of our undocumented population in the United States. Many might argue that the two are not comparable, as one group chooses to live without documents, while the other one simply has no access. I would disagree. Many people in the United States were brought there without their consent, and subsequently live without documents. Others chose so. The point is that the social exclusion achieves the same results and marginalizes a population that tends to be poor and voiceless.