Without legal proof of identity, children are left uncounted and invisible.
Every child has the right to a legal identity, but a quarter of children born today do not “officially” exist. These children are deprived of birth certificates – their first legal proof of identity – simply because their parents cannot afford it, cannot reach it, or face some other barrier to learning about and accessing registration services.
Without a birth certificate, children are invisible to their governments. This means they may miss out on essential programmes – like child protection, health care and education – that help secure their most fundamental rights.
A birth certificate is proof of
Because children without a birth certificate are unable to prove their age, they are more vulnerable to violence, abuse and exploitation. These girls and boys risk being trafficked, recruited into armed forces, or forced into early marriage or child labour. If they come into contact with the justice system, they may be prosecuted as adults and exposed to even more violence.
A birth certificate can also help protect migrant and refugee children from family separation. Without it, these children face a greater risk of statelessness due to lack of legal proof of nationality or legal ties to any country.
Children without birth certificates face uncertain futures. They can be cut off from routine vaccinations and other health care. They may be prevented from receiving social assistance, inheriting property, attending school or registering for exams. As a result, their future job prospects become extremely limited, rendering them more likely to live in poverty.
In young adulthood, official identification is also needed for basic but important transactions, like opening a bank account, registering to vote and entering the formal job market.
Of the 166 million children without a legal identity, half live in just five countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.
The benefits of birth registration go far beyond the child. Information from civil registration and vital statistics is essential for a country’s planning. Governments rely on accurate data to assess populations’ needs and make critical decisions about resource allocation – including those that affect the hardest-to-reach families. Without information on who’s being left behind and why, social inequities risk becoming entrenched.
Why aren’t some children being registered at birth?
A number of factors keep children from being registered. Most unregistered children live in poorer households – often in rural areas with limited access to registration services, or in the more than 100 countries without fully functioning civil registration systems. Cost is a significant barrier: Many families cannot afford to travel to registration sites or pay fees associated with registration, including fees for late registration.
In other cases, parents may be unaware of birth registration or may not understand how important it is.
Certain ethnic and religious minorities have lower birth registration rates than the national average. This may be because their culture places an emphasis on other customs – like naming ceremonies – or because they are marginalized, often living in remote areas or unrecognized by their governments.
And in a number of countries, women do not share the same rights as men, including when it comes to registering their children. Some are unable to register their children at all, while others may do so only in the presence of the father.
UNICEF has been a key global player in birth registration for over thirty years. In 2018, we worked with governments and communities worldwide to register more than 16 million births and issue birth certificates to over 13 million people.
Our work focuses on helping governments strengthen their civil registration systems. This includes increasing the number of service points where children can be registered, developing or updating birth registration policies, fostering innovation in registration technology, and increasing community awareness about birth registration.
We work across sectors like health, education and social protection to make information and services related to birth registration widely available. This is done through various means – including immunization drives, school enrolments and cash transfer programmes – and in numerous places – like hospitals and health centres.
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Last updated 3 September 2020