'Independence' baby signals the birth of a new nation
By Stephen Gray
JUBA, South Sudan, 15 July 2011 – Early on the morning of 9 July, a choir of shrieking women echoed in unison from the maternity ward of Juba Teaching Hospital in South Sudan. But the sound from the ward was not of women in pain. Instead, they were calling out together in joy.
Like the thousands gathered in the streets outside, they were celebrating a new birth. Only moments earlier, South Sudan had officially become the world’s newest nation. And now the women in the hospital were marking another first – the first baby born after independence. And he, too, would be called Independence.
Independence Moses Spina was born just after midnight local time on Saturday in Juba, the new republic’s capital city.
Children at risk
How did Ms. Spina feel about the first recorded birth in the new Republic of South Sudan? “Happy,” she replied, a look of tired satisfaction on her face.
Ms. Spina and Independence represent a microcosm of the challenges faced by South Sudan at the dawn of this new country. A former child soldier, Ms. Spina joined the Sudan People’s Liberation Army at the age of 14. Now she works for the Wildlife Protection Service, having participated in a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program.
Independence is her second child, born into a country where one in nine children dies before reaching the age of five; more than half of girls are married younger than the legal age; and the risk of underage recruitment into armed forces remains high.
“South Sudan is still one of the riskiest places in the world for a child to be born,” said UNICEF Director in South Sudan Dr. Yasmin Ali Haque. “There are huge challenges to survival and development.”
Birth registration as a right
But baby Independence is lucky. Through the Child Act of 2008, his country’s nascent government has committed to improving access to basic services for its most vulnerable citizens. One of the act’s key provisions is universal birth registration. Unlike about two-thirds of his compatriots, Independence Moses Spina has been officially registered as a citizen of South Sudan.
“Birth registration is a fundamental human right. It gives you citizenship and an identity,” said UNICEF South Sudan Chief of Child Protection Fatuma Ibrahim. “It shows you exist.”
With so many competing priorities, why should the government and its partners focus on birth registration? Because child labour, early marriage and the recruitment of child soldiers remain major issues in South Sudan – and for the new government to tackle these problems, each child needs an official, accurate account of his or her age.
Birth registration will also help the government plan for the new country’s infrastructure and service needs. “How can you plan for the future of citizens who don’t even exist?” asked Ms. Ibrahim.
Extending services nation-wide
Raising awareness about the importance of registration remains a challenge, however. Ultimately, reliable registration services must be available throughout the country.
Drawing upon its extensive experience in other countries, UNICEF will work with its partners to help the government extend birth registration services to hospitals, child-care centres and traditional birth centres throughout South Sudan.
But much work remains to be done. Before these services can be systematically delivered nation-wide, an effective, computerized registration process must be established. In addition, health-care providers and information registrars must be trained – and supported by mass awareness campaigns to encourage birth registration.
Back in the delivery room, Ms. Spina rests, proud to be the mother of the new nation’s first baby. Like so many others, she has struggled for a new identity for herself and her country. Now there is hope that children like Independence won’t have to fight so hard for theirs.
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