Civil Rights - Commentary

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Birth registration: The 'first' right

Unity Dow

A birth certificate is a ticket to citizenship. Without one, an individual does not officially exist and therefore lacks legal access to the privileges and protections of a nation. Civil registration is also the basic tool by which an efficient government counts its citizens and plans the schools, health centres and other services they need. Yet many nations lack effective systems for recording births. Every year, about 40 million babies -- one third of all births -- go unregistered around the world.

Hidden behind the well-known images of children who have missed out on life's opportunities for want of adequate care is a huge but silent group of children denied another fundamental right: the right to a name and nationality. These children are denied their birthright by their very invisibility. Lacking birth certificates, they spend their lives on the edges of the 'official' world, skirting or falling over obstacles that never arise in the paths of those who had the good fortune to be registered when they were born.

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In the scheme of things, the need for a birth certificate may not seem profound, especially when compared with the hurdles children routinely have to scale in developing countries. But in reality, that piece of paper is crucial. It is the proof that what might be called the 'first' right, the right to an official identity, has been fulfilled.

Registration of birth is the State's first acknowledgement of a child's existence. It represents recognition of a child's significance to the country and of his or her status under the law. This ticket to citizenship opens the door to the fulfilment of rights and to the privileges and services that a nation offers its people.

Without proof of birth, a child cannot be legally vaccinated in at least 20 countries. More than 30 countries require birth registration before a child can be treated in a health centre. Most countries demand to see a birth certificate before enrolling a child in school. Many require one for supplemental feeding programmes. Such fundamental activities as getting married, opening a bank account, owning land, voting and obtaining a passport may be denied to a person without a birth certificate, because it is the basis on which a country identifies its citizens.

In addition to conferring privilege, proof of birth can also protect. With it, a boy can verify that he is ineligible for military service, a girl that she is too young to go to work. Registration can offer a degree of protection from sex traffickers. Knowing that a girl without papers is more vulnerable and less likely to run away, traffickers typically snare their victims in remote villages where poverty is high and registration rates are low.

And a birth certificate can be a useful ally in the hands of a teenager accused of a crime. I am presiding over a murder trial of a young man who doesn't have a birth certificate. If convicted, he could face the hangman's noose because he cannot prove that he was under 18 at the time the crime was committed.

If birth registration is significant for the individual, it is profound for the nation. Without vital registration systems capable of determining how many people live within a country's borders, the authorities may not know how many doses of vaccine to buy or how many schoolrooms to build. Without a registration system, a country does not know its own birth rate -- or death rate. An effective system of birth registration is fundamental not only to the fulfilment of child rights but to the rational operation of a humane government in the modern world.

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