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

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

10 December 2019
A nurse registers Wunn Yan Kha at the Nation Birth Registration Campaign Naypyidaw
A nurse registers a baby's birth in Myanmar as part of a national birth registration programme.

NEW YORK, 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 education, health care and other vital services, and are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.”

Global progress is driven largely by great strides in South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. In India, the proportion of registered children rose from 41 per cent in 2005-2006 to 80 per cent in 2015-2016. In recent years, UNICEF has worked with the Government of India to prioritize birth registration across states by increasing and improving access to registration centres, training officials and community workers and rolling out public awareness programmes, particularly amongst the most vulnerable communities.

By contrast, the majority of countries in sub-Saharan Africa lag behind the rest of the world, with Ethiopia (3 per cent), Zambia (11 per cent*) and Chad (12 per cent) recording the lowest levels of registered births globally.

The report notes that nearly 1 in 3 countries – accounting for around a third of the global population of children under the age of five – will need to urgently speed up progress in order to meet the target of providing legal identity for all, including birth registration, as set out in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

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, fees for late registration and long distances to the nearest registration facility. Traditional customs and practices in some communities – such as new mothers staying indoors – may also deter or prevent formal birth registration in the permitted timeframe.

Even when children 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, regardless of gender, to register their children at birth.
  • Link birth registration to other systems to facilitate every child’s right to services including health, social protection and education.
  • Invest in safe and innovative technological solutions to facilitate birth registration.
  • 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.

*Latest available data 2013-2014 (DHS). Updated data are expected to be released in early 2020.

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Helen Wylie
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Additional resources

This newborn baby just received her birth certificate at the hospital of Sibiti, in the South of Congo
This newborn baby just received her birth certificate at the hospital of Sibiti, in the South of Congo


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