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The right to a formal identity

It is estimated that, in 2003, the births of 48 million children - 36 per cent of total births that year - went unregistered. Having their existence and identity officially registered is a fundamental human right of every child as stipulated by Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Registration enables children to obtain a birth certificate, which is the most visible evidence of a government's legal recognition of their existence as a member of society. A birth certificate is also proof of the child's fundamental relationship with parents and, generally, also determines nationality.

Birth registration may be needed for access to services later in life, from a place in school to treatment in a hospital. Cases of child marriage where age cannot be firmly established are hard to determine and almost impossible to prosecute.

Children who are unregistered at birth may also miss out on any protection that exists against premature conscription in the armed forces or, if they come into conflict with the law, against prosecution and punishment as adults. When they grow up, they may be unable to apply for a formal job or a passport, open a bank account, get a marriage licence or vote. A birth certificate may also be needed to obtain social security, family allowances, credit and a pension.

Although most countries have mechanisms for registering births, the number of births actually registered varies from country to country based on administrative capacity, available funds, access to the population and technology for data management. Other factors that influence birth registration levels include the existence of an adequate legislative framework; enforcement of existing legislation on birth registration; sufficient infrastructure to support the logistical aspects of registration; and the barriers that families encounter during registration.

The value of birth registration is often overlooked due to the continuing lack of awareness that registration is a critical measure to secure the recognition of every person before the law, to safeguard their rights and to ensure that any violation of these rights does not go unnoticed.

Registration may not be seen as important by society at large, by a government facing severe economic difficulties, by a country at war, or by families struggling with day-to-day survival. It is often considered to be no more than a legal formality, unrelated to child development, health, education or protection.

According to the latest UNICEF estimates, on average over half of births taking place every year in the developing world (excluding China) go unregistered, a proportion that rises to 62 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa. In South Asia the share is higher still at 70 per cent, which means that almost half of the children in the world who are denied their right to a legal identity at birth live in this region. [figure 3.1]

Unregistered births can serve as an indicator of other forms of social marginalization and disparity within countries or territories. Unregistered children are more likely to be the children of the poor: According to household survey in the United Republic of Tanzania from 2003, children born into families in the richest 20 per cent of the population are over 10 times more likely to be registered than those living in the poorest 20 per cent of households.

Location is also an important constraint on registration. Rural children are more likely to be unregistered than their urban peers. Other factors that contribute to disparities in birth registration include mother's education, loss of parents, religion and ethnicity.