Civil Rights - League Table

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Birth registration

A birth certificate is a child's proof of identity and represents the first acknowledgement of his or her significance to the country. Proof of birth is needed for a number of services, and it offers a degree of legal protection. But too few developing nations take birth registration seriously, and rates vary widely within and between countries. Some nations do not even know what percentage of their citizens are registered. All developing countries need to assess their status, set targets for improvement and make sure they fulfil them.

Birth registration: Flawed figures

"The child shall be registered immediately after birth..." mandates article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. But despite almost universal ratification of this human rights treaty, one third of all births -- about 40 million babies -- go unregistered every year. While the industrialized nations register virtually all their children, civil registration systems are still rudimentary in many developing countries. Many are uncertain as to what proportion of their children are registered; some do not even have a registration system. For these reasons, the league table presents broad percentages of coverage rather than precise numbers.

The problems in estimating registration coverage include the following:

  • While many countries have estimates of the percentage registered, most of these estimates are approximate. Very few countries have made the effort to assess coverage objectively and thoroughly.
  • Registration rates differ widely within many developing countries. Cities tend to have higher rates than rural areas because civil registries are centralized. Similarly, babies born in hospitals are more likely to be registered than babies born at home because the registration process often takes place in the hospital.
  • In many countries, ethnic minorities have lower rates of registration than the general population.
  • Despite the fact that the Convention on the Rights of the Child calls for children to be registered "immediately after birth," many children are registered later in life, such as when they enrol in school.
  • Civil registration systems lag in sub-Saharan Africa because of underdevelopment. In some countries, the leftover structures of colonial governments, which in many cases did not register the black population, have impeded progress on registration.
  • The responsibility for registering children at birth typically falls on mothers, adding another burden to their heavy workload. This is especially true in Africa and southern Asia where more than half of babies are born outside of hospitals.
The evidence of improvement in birth registration coverage is mixed. While many countries report increasing rates of registration, coverage is falling in others. Rates in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have declined in the past 10 years due to the disintegration of administrative structures following the break-up of the Soviet Union. China's registration system is being strained by an increasingly mobile population.

Registration must not be left to chance. Better quality and more timely information is vital to fulfilling children's rights and for national planning, and it is not that difficult to obtain. Countries including Brazil, Pakistan and Turkey have recently used household surveys to assess birth registration coverage.

These surveys also highlight disparities within countries. In Pakistan, for instance, Punjab Province registers 88% of children, while in North-West Frontier Province the figure is only 46%. Turkey's western region has a coverage rate of 84%, compared to the figure in the east -- 56%.

So far, too few countries have taken birth registration seriously. All developing countries need to assess their current status, set specific targets for improvement and follow up with regular monitoring.

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