Mobile campaign boosts registered births in Belize despite COVID-19

In rural and border communities, an innovative mobile campaign combines birth registration with food and hygiene supplies, bringing them to families’ doorsteps.

By Martina Tomassini
Belize: a mother holds her child who shows his birth certificate. Both are wearing a face mask for COVID-19 prevention.
UNICEF Belize/2020
27 November 2020

AGUACATE, Belize ─ In Aguacate, a small Q'eqchi'-Maya village in the south of Belize, Erma Cus and her husband smile as they celebrate the newest resident of their community: their son.

“We registered our son years ago but the birth certificate never arrived. We’re happy because now, with a birth certificate, things will get easier for him as he gets older,” Erma says. Her child is nearly 5 years old.

Birth registration is a fundamental human right, yet in Belize 4 per cent of the population is unregistered. And 14 per cent of those who are registered do not have a birth certificate.

There are also important disparities in birth registration among districts: according to Belize Vital Statistics, in 2018 less than 50 per cent of live births in Toledo District had been registered – leaving the majority of children born in that district not counted.

Without a birth certificate, a person is without an identity and basically does not exist. Children are especially vulnerable and miss out on access to basic social services – it makes it more difficult for them to go to school, see a doctor, or receive financial help if they need it.

In addition, children without birth certificates are at higher risk of abuse, exploitation and violence including forced marriage, human trafficking or statelessness.

In short, without a birth certificate, children are denied their rights.

Belize: a mother holds her child and is sitting on a bench next to her husbands, who has their son's birth registration paperwork in his hands. Both are wearing face masks for COVID-19 prevention.
UNICEF Belize/2020
Erma Cus sits with her son and husband in Aguacate village, located in Belize's southern Toledo District, with the paperwork that certifies the birth registration of their son. This was made possible thanks to a mobile birth registration campaign by Belize Vital Statistics, with the support from UNICEF and UNHCR.
Why children don’t get registered?

There are many reasons why children don’t get registered, in Belize and globally. As in Erma’s case, sometimes it is gaps in the civil registration system. Other times, parents may be unaware of birth registration, or how important it actually is.

In addition, cost and access often represent an insurmountable barrier. Parents may be unable to afford the costs associated with registration, including travel to registration sites or late fees. And they may live in rural communities, far from registration centres – just like Aguacate.

This was the case for Manuela Tut, who also lives in Aguacate. “I was very happy when I heard my husband and I were offered the opportunity to register our child now,” she explains. “I wasn’t able to register my child before because that meant going to Dangriga [located over 150 km away] and is quite expensive,” she continues. Her son has recently turned 4 years old. He has just been registered.

Belize: a mother is sitting on a bench outdoors surrounded by lush vegetation. She is looking at a flyer distributed by staff from UNICEF and Belize Vital Statistics, who are standing by her.
UNICEF Belize/2020
Mother Manuela Tut looks at one of the flyers included in the relief packages distributed to families as part of the UNICEF-UNHCR-supported mobile birth registration campaign in Belize. A UNICEF staff and an official from Belize Vital Statics stand by her to facilitate the birth registration of her child. Aguacate village, Belize.
Mobile and relevant: a winning formula to boost birth registration

Draft messages in Spanish, English, Q'eqchi' and Mopan Maya, on the importance of birth registration were. Deliver them with COVID-19 relief packages to help vulnerable families. Have an appointed official from the Belize Vital Statistics Unit present to facilitate mobile birth registration. And watch birth registration rates soar.

After applying twice since her child was born, Erma now holds her son’s birth certificate in her hands. Her determination – and the mobile registration campaign supported by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and UNICEF – made this possible.

The campaign targeted border communities in rural areas in the south, west and north of Belize. This was done to reach some of the most vulnerable people across the country – including children born in indigenous, asylum-seeker, refugee and migrant communities.

To date, 30 communities have been reached and 201 children have been registered in Belize thanks to joint efforts by the Belize Vital Statistics Unit; UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency; and UNICEF.

Belize: a man and a woman carry a box bearing UNICEF and UNHCR logos.
UNICEF Belize/2020
Relief packages are being prepared for distribution, as part of the mobile birth registration campaign UNICEF and UNHCR jointly carried out with Belize Vital Statics. Independence village, Stann Creek District, Belize.
What can be done to improve birth registration rates?

Improving birth registration rates can be done in a number of ways. For example, by eliminating late registration fees. By increasing the number of trained registrars. And by sending them to remote areas in mobile registration units – as was the case with this mobile registration campaign in Belize.

To reach universal birth registration in the country, UNICEF and UNHCR call for a birth registration system that is equally accessible to all parents, including in the most remote areas; allows for late registration without extra fees; and is free of charge for all.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has strongly recommended that Belize make birth registration free of charge at all stages of the process. UNICEF and UNHCR are deeply concerned that Belize has just increased the amount of the fine for late registration (12 months after birth).

Belize: bags, flyers and other items bearing UNICEF logo are laid out on a table.
UNICEF Belize/2020
Items to be included in relief packages with food and hygiene supplies, as part of the UNICEF-UNHCR-supported mobile birth registration campaign in Belize. Flyers contain information about birth registration, breastfeeding, proper nutrition and COVID-19 prevention. Independence village, Stann Creek District, Belize.
Why birth registration in the midst of a pandemic?

No birth registration means no proof of name or nationality. In legal terms, these children do not exist – and the repercussions can last a lifetime.

This is why birth registration is vital for all children, always.

“As a member of the National Birth Registration Steering Committee, UNHCR is committed to combating incidences that may lead to statelessness, and encourages every step towards the registration of not only every refugee child, but every child born in Belize,” says Kerrie Williams, Senior Protection Assistant at UNHCR.

Michel Guinand, UNICEF Policy Specialist, Programme Coordinator and Social Policy Specialist, also stresses the importance for every child to have a birth certificate: “A birth certificate is a child’s first line of defense against forced marriage, human trafficking and statelessness. Furthermore, quality vital statistics are essential to guide national policies and programmes.”

Specifically in the context of COVID-19, after restrictions are lifted, unregistered children will face a number of barriers. For example, when they need to access public services, such as healthcare, humanitarian assistance, financial aid and other social services.

This is why birth registration is more relevant than ever.

We registered our son years ago but the birth certificate never arrived. We’re happy because now, with a birth certificate, things will get easier for him as he gets older.

Erma Cus, Belize.

Belize is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and has integrated the right of every child to be registered at birth in national legislation.

Belize has achieved a birth registration coverage rate of 96 per cent. However, four per cent of people between the ages of 0 and 5 are still not recognized before the law, and therefore unable to enjoy their child and human rights fully.

To reach 100 per cent birth registration in Belize, some challenges need to be addressed. For example: not all registered children possess a birth certificate; there are significant disparities in birth registration across the country; and children in the poorest households are less likely to be registered.

UNICEF has been working with the Government of Belize across the country to ensure that  every child fulfills her right to a name and nationality.