When Pamela gave birth, she couldn’t afford the fee to register her babies as citizens. Years later, that trap still held her children tight.

You don’t exist.

That’s the reality for individuals who, though born in Ecuador to Ecuadorian parents, are not officially registered. Children whose names do not appear in the country’s civil registry have no legal identity, no citizenship, no rights or protections under the law. In short, they are no one. They belong nowhere.

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The Children Who Belong Nowhere

Pamela and her husband work sporadically on construction jobs for a meagre wage. Like many others who live in poverty, they simply couldn’t afford the US$65 fee for a birth certificate and citizenship identity card for their babies. So their daughter María Belén, now six years old, and her four siblings were not registered at birth.

They were hardly alone. According to 2015 records, 15 per cent of the country’s children under age five were unregistered. Around half of these children were under the age of one.

Without an official identity, María Belén wasn’t allowed to attend school, so she had no choice but to hang out all day at home or in the neighbourhood streets with her siblings. Sometimes, they accompanied their parents to a construction job site, an extremely dangerous environment for children.

In addition to the lack of education, María Belén and her siblings were denied access to basic public health services—a dire situation made worse by the fact that their parents couldn’t consistently provide food for them.

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A Cry for Help

“I was desperate,” says Pamela, about the afternoon she gathered her children and took them to the local church where, she had heard, they could get a meal.

“My children hadn’t eaten in more than a day, so I took them to the church,” she says. “While I talked to the director about registering them in the church’s [Compassion] program, they were taken into the dining room and given food. They ate as if they were starving.”

Pamela’s heart broke when the director of the church’s Compassion centre, Catalina Rodas, told her that her children couldn’t be registered in the Child Sponsorship Program without identity cards.

“I was sad,” says Pamela. "I didn’t have them.”

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Gaining an Identity

Turning Pamela and her children away was unacceptable to Catalina, who couldn’t stop thinking about the disenfranchised family. Visiting their home, she learned, to her dismay, that the children weren’t attending school.

“I couldn’t let those children grow up without food or education. I had to do something,” says Catalina.

“As a church we decided to support this family. The first step was to obtain an official identity for the children, to get them into the civil registry so they could have rights like other Ecuadorian citizens.”

Catalina accompanied the family to the municipal office in their coastal city of La Libertad to start the long, complicated process of registering the children. They had to travel two hours to Guayaquil to collect copies of required government documents, but the church helped support the family’s expenses for the trip.

Throughout the process, Catalina and the church community helped Pamela to complete the forms, encouraging her to persevere through the complicated paperwork and the endless waiting.

Finally, one day, they got the good news.

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Full Rights and a Bright Future

Today, María Belén and her siblings all have birth certificates and official identity cards. They attend school, and María Belén is enrolled at the church’s Compassion centre.

“It is a great blessing to see that these children now have an identity and rights. Their lives have been transformed through the love of God!” says Catalina.

Although the economic situation in their home is still difficult, Pamela and her husband now have hope that their children will have a better future, full of opportunities—not only because they are receiving an education, but also because they have the support of the church and they know that God loves them.

María Belén says, “When I grow up, I want to be a doctor to take care of children and heal them when they get sick. I also want to be a tutor to help other children who cannot go to school.”

Words by Nico Benalcazar and Richard Miller

Photos by Nico Benalcazar