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A third of newborns unregistered and at risk

The Progress of Nations 1998Wednesday, 8 July 1998: One out of three children born each year are at risk because they are not registered at birth, according to The Progress of Nations 1998, a yearly report by UNICEF on how effectively countries are improving the status of children.

Lack of registration leaves an estimated 40 million babies born each year without an official name or nationality. Twenty-two nations have no available data on birth registration.

"This is one of the major unreported stories of our time," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy, said at the report's launch in London today. "Lack of a valid birth certificate threatens a child fundamentally. Whether seeking health care or immunization, entering school or proving one is too young for military service or to work in hazardous industries, a birth certificate is a necessity."

Migrating to the city for work or fleeing armed conflict across a national border, a child who lacks proof of identity is, in the eyes of officials, a non-person. This absence of proof is especially serious for those who are displaced by war, famine or natural disaster. "It's not hard in today's world to become a child without a country," Ms. Bellamy said.

Without a birth certificate, children cannot be legally vaccinated in at least 20 countries. More than 30 nations require proof of birth before a child can be treated at a health centre. Almost universally, a certificate must be produced before a child can enrol in school.

Discriminatory birth registration laws mean that in some nations, a child whose father is missing or is not a citizen has no legal identity. The report notes that the right to a name and a nationality is guaranteed in Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

"Without effective birth registration systems, governments find it difficult to plan for the future," Ms. Bellamy said. "They may not know how many doses of vaccine to buy or the number of classrooms to build. All governments need to assess their registration procedures and make sure their citizens see the value of a birth certificate -- and that they can get one easily."

The Progress of Nations 1998 also examines the issue of immunization, past, present and future.

"Despite dramatic progress on immunisation over the last two decades," Ms. Bellamy said, "millions of children are slipping through the safety net. It is vital that we focus on the disparities. If most children are immunized, it is important to know more about those who are not, and why they are not."

As the world moves past the year 2000, new vaccines will be capable of saving up to eight million more lives a year, but lack of commitment on the part of both donors and governments of developing countries could preclude getting these vaccines to those most in need.

The cost to donors of full immunization in the world's poorest nations could eventually rise to $700 million annually -- just 12 cents per person a year worldwide. "Given a $30 trillion global economy," Ms. Bellamy said, "the world can surely afford a penny per person per month to protect the lives of its poorest and most vulnerable citizens."

The Progress of Nations 1998 also deals with the emerging issue of adolescence and with the growing phenomenon of homelessness in industrialized nations.

According to the report, young people aged 10 to 19 account for one-sixth of the world's population. Early marriage and pregnancy, child labour, lack of schooling and widespread sexual discrimination are among the issues that demand urgent attention as this largest generation in history moves into the third millennium.

"Adolescence represents a time of great potential and even greater risk," Ms. Bellamy said. "We must listen to the problems of the young and provide real channels for their participation and growth."

Homelessness in the industrialized world is evidence of increasing economic disparities within the most wealthy nations. When social safety nets erode to the extent that people can no longer afford even the basic necessities, women and children are the first victims. In 12 of the wealthiest countries, per capita gross national product more than doubled in the last 15 years – but, at the same time, homelessness increased.

In the foreward to The Progress of Nations 1998, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan calls the report "a clarion call for children" that "reminds us annually that rhetoric about children must be backed up by action."

Please email with comments or requests for more information, quoting CF/DOC/PR/1998/33.

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