As Malawi issues IDs for children, privacy concerns rise

Malawi is registering 8.4 million under-16s, but with no data protection law there is concern about privacy and surveillance

Charles PensuloThomson Reuters Foundation
Published : 27 Dec 2022, 08:12 AM
Updated : 27 Dec 2022, 08:12 AM

Waiting in line to register his three children with the government for the first time, Malawian motorcycle taxi driver Nyadani Michael recalled the everyday problems caused by their lack of official identity papers.

"When you enrol them in school, they ask for a birth certificate or some age proof," said Michael, 30, as he queued up outside a classroom in the border town of Mwanza where the forms had to be submitted, holding the hand of his six-year-old daughter.

"One child also went missing near the house some years ago, and I had to file a police complaint. It was difficult because there was no form of identification for them," he added.

Until recently, many Malawians did not register their children's births. Michael only got his own national identity in 2018 as the government pushed to gather the biometrics of all adult Malawians and issue them identity cards.

  • Malawi pushes to register 8.4 million under-16s

  • IDs essential for education and healthcare access

  • Lack of data protection law raises privacy fears

Malawi adopted the National Registration Act in 2010, and enforced it in 2015, making it compulsory to register all births, deaths and marriages of adults older than 16.

Before that, most Malawians used their voter ID as their primary identification, getting a letter from their village chief attesting to their address and age to obtain a passport or driving licence. Millions of children were not registered.

Since 2017, when the Malawian government, with funding from the UN development agency (UNDP) and the European Union, began biometric registrations, more than 9 million adults - or about 90% of eligible adults - have been registered.

The exercise, aimed at improving delivery of services, governance and fostering economic and social inclusion, is part of the Digital Malawi project that sets out to link every citizen to a government database.

But a more recent government push from October to register some 8.4 million children below the age of 16 by 2023 has raised concerns about privacy and surveillance, with biometric data being collected and even newborns issued a unique ID number.


Biometrics are being captured and IDs being issued even as the country's data protection law is still being drafted, said Jimmy Kainja, who teaches media and communications at the University of Malawi, and researches digital rights and privacy.

"The problem is the registration push has come in the absence of robust data protection in Malawi ... We are doing all of this without any data protection for citizens," he said.

The National Registration Bureau did not respond to requests for comment, but government officials have played down concerns about possible surveillance and data privacy.

Minister of Homeland Security Jean Sendeza said at a meeting in September that registration was important because it would mean various government institutions can "easily track details of every Malawian".

He said the registrations and biometric IDs were also key to preventing crimes against children.


Worldwide, an estimated 1 billion people - 40% of whom live in Africa - do not have official proof of identity, greatly limiting their ability to access health, education and financial services, according to World Bank estimates.

Countries are increasingly adopting digital ID systems, citing greater efficiency and fraud prevention. But these often exclude marginalised groups such as the elderly or the homeless, who are denied essential services.

Malawi's National Registration Bureau collects information such as the person's name, date of birth, place of residence, and parents' names, in addition to biometric data - fingerprints and photographs.

Since its implementation in 2018, the national ID has become the only form of identification for many services, including banking, SIM card registration, accessing welfare benefits and COVID-19 vaccinations.

The UN children's agency (UNICEF), which is supporting the government's drive to register children, said an ID would help make "visible" millions of Malawian children without any form of identification, and help check abuse.

"The provision of an identity document is the first step towards addressing issues of child labour, child marriage and child trafficking, as well as inheritance," Bejoy Nambiar, a health systems specialist at UNICEF Malawi, said in an email.

He said that children without IDs struggled to enrol in schools and access healthcare, and that it was challenging to provide essential services without accurate and up-to-date numbers. Fears of the data being misused are overblown, he said.


Malawi's data protection bill, drafted in 2020 but with no date set for passage, governs the collection and processing of personal data to ensure that it is kept in a "safe, secure, lawful" manner, and used only within the ambit of the law.

The bill mandates obtaining consent prior to processing data of a minor, and provides for protecting children's privacy, including from potential abuse by individuals who could unlawfully share, disseminate or sell their personal data.

But collecting and storing information without a data protection law in place may infringe on children's rights to privacy, and also expose minority groups to targeted attacks, as data on ethnicity is also collected, said Kainja.

"We are giving away all this information about kids to the government. It can be a good thing, for example, when there is an outbreak of a disease, but it also opens up the possibility of surveillance," he said.

"Ethnic minority groups can be more easily targeted because all their information is available - and also, for example, people with albinism. There is no legal framework to protect their data - the government should really be putting measures in place first," he added.

For Michael, who registered his three children after a long wait, the benefits of the IDs are clear, and he trusts the government to protect their data, he said.

"Sometimes children can be involved in accidents on the road," he said.

"With an ID it would be very easy to identify them, so it is important that they be registered."