Despite significant increase in birth registration, a quarter of the world’s children remain ‘invisible’ – UNICEF

Proportion of registered births increased almost 20 per cent over past decade, yet 166 million children under-five have never been officially recorded

11 December 2019
Children being registered at Canogo health center in Guinea-Bissau
UNICEF Guinea-Bissau/2018/Pagetti VII

BISSAU, 11 December 2019 – The number of children whose births are officially registered has increased significantly worldwide, yet 166 million children under-five, or 1 in 4, remain unregistered, according to a new report released by UNICEF today on its own 73rd birthday.

Birth Registration for Every Child by 2030: Are we on track? – which analyses data from 174 countries – shows that the proportion of children under-five registered globally is up around 20 per cent from 10 years ago – increasing from 63 per cent to 75 per cent.

“We have come a long way but too many children are still slipping through the cracks, uncounted and unaccounted for,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “A child not registered at birth is invisible – nonexistent in the eyes of the government or the law. Without proof of identity, children are often excluded from accessing education, health care and other vital services, vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.”

Global progress is driven largely by great strides in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, but progress is also seen in West and Central Africa where under-five registration increased in 10 years from 41 per cent to 51 per cent, despite the multiple challenges that the region is facing. In the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria, the proportion of children whose births are officially registered increased from 30 per cent in 2008 to 43 per cent in 2018, showing the value of integrating birth registration into health services. Francophone African countries, such as Benin, Congo and Guinea have also made steady progress in improving national birth registration rates.

“Birth registration in West and Central Africa remained stagnant for a long time, leaving millions of children without their basic right to legal identity. This situation has now changed and millions more children are registered at birth”, said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa. “With UNICEF’s support and under the leadership of the African Union and of national governments, countries have invested in integrating birth registration in health and immunization platforms to extend the coverage and accessibility of services and reach even the most vulnerable populations. This simple shift in service delivery is not only low cost but effective in increasing national registration rates, contributing to progress in the region as a whole.”

Regarding Guinea-Bissau's efforts to increase the number of children registered, the gradual integration of birth registration services into health facilities needs to be highlighted, with UNICEF and the UN Peacebuilding Fund support. Currently, 20 birth registration centers are operational in all national and regional hospitals, as well as, in some health centers, and the extension of new ones will continue. At the same time, birth registration outreach initiatives have been widely promoted to bring birth registration services to the communities. Since 2017, more than 50,000 Guinean children have benefited from these two important initiatives.

However, these efforts need to continue, in order to strengthen collaboration with other governmental sectors, particularly education, and to address the challenges that continue to make it difficult for children to be registered after birth. Special attention should be given to the fact that many families live in rural and remote areas, where services are not operational.

Despite progress, the majority of countries in sub-Saharan Africa lag behind the rest of the world and some of the lowest levels of registration are found in Chad (12 per cent) or Guinea-Bissau (24 per cent).

“Governments must scale up proven solutions to improve birth registration, if they are to meet the Sustainable Development Goal target on making every child count”, stressed Marie-Pierre Poirier.

Barriers to registration globally include lack of knowledge on how to register a child’s birth, unaffordable fees for registering a birth or obtaining a birth certificate, and distance to the nearest registration facility. Traditional customs and practices in some communities – such as new mothers staying indoors or single mothers’ inability to register their children – may also deter or prevent formal birth registration in the permitted timeframe.

Even when children’s births are registered, possession of a birth certificate is less common, with 237 million children under-five globally – or slightly more than 1 in 3 – lacking this official proof of registration. 

In Birth Registration for Every Child by 2030, UNICEF calls for five actions to protect all children:

  • Provide every child with a certificate upon birth.
  • Empower all parents, including single parents, regardless of gender, to register their children at birth and for free during the first year of life.
  • Link birth registration to basic services, particularly health, social protection and education, as an entry point for registration.
  • Invest in safe and innovative technological solutions to allow every child to be registered, including in hard-to-reach areas.
  • Engage communities to demand birth registration for every child.

“Every child has a right to a name, a nationality and a legal identity, so any improvement in increased registration levels is welcome news,” said Fore. “But as we have just marked the 30th anniversary of these rights – as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child – we must not stop until every child is counted.”

Notes to Editors:

Birth registration is the official recording of the occurrence and characteristics of a birth by the civil registrar within the civil registry, in accordance with the legal requirements of a country. A birth certificate is a vital record, issued by the civil registrar, that documents the birth of a child. Because it is a certified extract from the birth registration record, it proves that registration has occurred – making this document the first, and often only, proof of legal identity, particularly for children.

UNICEF global databases include birth registration estimates for 174 countries, primarily from nationally representative household surveys such as the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) and Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS). Other data sources in the global database include other national surveys, censuses and vital statistics from civil registration systems.

Media contacts

Sandra Bisin
Regional Chief of Communication
UNICEF West and Central Africa
Tel: +221 77 819 2300
Wilson Gama
Communication Officer
UNICEF Guinea-Bissau
Tel: +245 95 579 79 53


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