A fundamental right
Nothing would seem simpler than recording the name, sex, parentage, and time and place of a child’s birth. However, this “first rights” of a child, as enshrined in both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, remain unfulfilled for the majority of Africa’s children.
Only 44 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s children under-five years of age are registered today, and in rural areas, the rate is even lower. For children of Eastern and Southern Africa, the reality is even more worrying: only 38 per cent of children are registered, ranging widely from 3 per cent in Somalia to 95 per cent in South Africa.
In addition to geographic disparities, growing economic inequities between and within countries adds up to one more barrier that hinders children’s chance of being registered at birth. In Zambia, for example, the official rate of birth registration is just 14 per cent. However, in some provinces this rate is less than 1 per cent. Moreover, only 5 per cent of the Zambian children born in the poorest households have their births registered, and that is significantly lower than the 31 per cent for those born in the richest households.
Without a birth certificate, children cannot enroll in school and are not eligible to receive child support grants. Addressing inequities or protection of marginalized groups would not be possible in the absence of population data. Nor can good governance, human rights and the rule of law be achieved. When children have no legal proof of age and legal identity, they are more vulnerable to early marriage and other harmful practices, including child labour, illegal inter-country adoption, and recruitment into armed forces and groups or commercial sexual exploitation. Minimum age of criminal responsibility and other legal protective measures may not apply to those who are in contact with the law. Lack of birth certificates can also complicate the processes for repatriation of refugee children, as well as family tracing for children separated from their families.
Although most countries in ESA have legal provisions to facilitate timely registration of births, few have policies that ensure birth certificates are free. Many are faced with shortage of funds with their civil registration systems, which are often not in line with international standards. There is also a lack of awareness among citizens on the importance of civil registration for children, and this is further hampered by social barriers that prevent the registration of particular groups of children, such as children with disabilities, migrant children, orphans, pastoralist children, children from minority ethnic groups, and children living and working on the streets.
UNICEF in action
Improvements in civil registration on the African continent have been few and far between. However, in close partnership with governments and other development partners, UNICEF is increasingly relying on innovative strategies to radically improve national civil registration systems. These include:
Results for Children
More on birth registration