Civil Rights - Commentary

Home | UNICEF in Action | Highlights | Information Resources | Donations, Greeting Cards & Gifts | Press Centre | Voices of Youth | About UNICEF

Millions are 'missing'

The number of people who have been denied the right to birth registration is unknown, and therein lies the problem. Many countries simply do not have adequate systems for keeping track. The available data suggest that many millions of citizens have slipped between the cracks -- or, more accurately, the chasms -- of government registries. Every year, around 40 million births go unregistered.

The right to be registered at birth is rooted in article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It states: "The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name [and] the right to acquire a nationality. . . ." There is no equivocation here; the 191 countries that have ratified the Convention are obligated to fulfil this pledge.

And they are obligated to make clear to their citizens why it is important. In rural societies where people live their entire lives within a small radius, where the teacher is your neighbour and the health worker your aunt, the idea that you need a piece of paper to prove your existence may be unfathomable. And to suggest that children must be registered for purposes of government planning is in some cases plainly threatening.

Copyright © UNICEF/92--175/Lemoyne

Ideally, babies born in hospitals are registered before they go home.
Countries with high percentages of home births tend to have lower rates of registration because of the logistical obstacles families face.

But the world is changing, and the circles in which people spend their lives are enlarging. In this far more complex and anonymous environment, proving nationality is not a utopian exercise in child rights. It is a practical necessity. Whether migrating to the city for work or fleeing armed conflict across a national border, a person who lacks proof of identity is, in the eyes of officials, a non-person.

Governments need to make the process easier. Many hospitals now begin the registration process as soon as the baby is born, but that is only a partial solution. In some areas of the world, such as Africa and southern Asia in particular, more than half of all babies are delivered outside hospitals.

A country's birth registration system may fail, by accident or design, to function for all the people. Myanmar has three levels of citizenship: Since 1982, only people who can prove continuous residence and no intermarriage back to their great-grandfathers have been granted full citizenship. Until recently in Thailand, many children of the 750,000 hill tribe population were not eligible for nationality because their parents are not Thai citizens.

The obstacles to registration are often banal, the product of misplaced priorities and bureaucratic inadequacies. Poor and rural countries tend to have lower registration rates, struggling as they must to cope with the inevitable shortages of trained personnel and modern technology, the logistical problems of travelling to registry offices and ignorance or fear of the process. As a result, birth registration lags in countries such as Sierra Leone, which has a registration rate of less than 10 per cent; Zimbabwe, with around one third registered; and Bolivia, where about half the people have a birth certificate.

Yet other countries, though dealing with economic and other difficulties, still manage to register a significant proportion of their children. Despite per capita gross national product of less than $800 a year, eight countries -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, China, Honduras, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan -- manage to register at least 90 per cent of births.

Some countries have not managed even to establish a mandatory birth registration system, among them Afghanistan, Cambodia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Namibia and Oman. Some of these countries may keep other forms of records -- such as Oman, which records children in a national health register once they visit a health centre -- but such procedures are prone to errors of both omission and commission. They cannot replace a dedicated birth registration system. The Palestinian Authority is in the process of developing such a system, transferring birth data from the records of the Israeli Government.

There are many specific reasons, some of them quite rational, why families avoid registering their children. Most commonly, they simply cannot overcome the logistical hurdles of getting to the proper office, and governments must take steps to solve this problem by decentralizing the registrars. Registration may also conflict with tradition, or ethnic minorities may view it as an official attempt to dilute their culture.

In Madagascar, where traditional naming practices are considered sacred, the civil registration system is not widely regarded as worthwhile. In Kenya, birth registration became compulsory for whites in 1904, but only in 1971 did it become mandatory for all. Viewing registration as a colonial custom unconnected to their culture, many citizens were slow to accept its benefits.

A person who is knowingly skirting the law will certainly be reluctant to report vital events to the government. So it is no surprise that in China one of the main reasons for non-registration at birth is nonconformance with the prescribed family planning policies.

Sometimes the system itself is an obstacle. This fundamental right costs money in at least 50 countries, which charge for either the registration or the certificate. Or the procedure may be clouded in bureaucratic confusion, as in Indonesia, where collection of birth information is complicated by the overlapping jurisdictions of government and civic bodies: the Ministries of Interior, Justice, Health and Family Welfare, as well as the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Parents in China have 30 days to register a child's birth, but they must do so in the village of the mother's official residence, a problem for families who migrate for work. This obstacle alone delays or prevents the registration of up to 10 million children. And the rate of registration has deteriorated since China discontinued its practice of rationing food based on the number of registered family members.

Africa's most populous country, Nigeria, with an estimated 5 million births a year, doesn't know exactly what percentage of births are registered. As in many other countries in Africa, where formal registration began later than in other regions, the vital statistics systems exist, but their reliability and efficiency are hampered by a host of problems: insufficient funding, inadequate technology, poorly trained staff, lack of publicity and a corresponding lack of public awareness of the importance of registration.

Previous | Contents | Continue

Home | UNICEF in Action | Highlights | Information Resources | Donations, Greeting Cards & Gifts | Press Centre | Voices of Youth | About UNICEF