The Dominican Republic’s invisible children

The lack of birth registration deprives about 186,000 children in Dominican Republic of basic rights like medical care, vaccination and education

By Alfonso F. Reca
A child plays with his bike in the Dominican Republic
UNICEF LAC/2017/Reca
28 July 2017

SAN JOSÉ DE LOS LLANOS, Dominican Republic, 28 July 2017 – You won’t find the small town of San José de los Llanos in tourist brochures about the Dominican Republic.

Rain runs through the muddy gravel streets and the water has crept into the home of Isabel, Jorge Luis and their son Brandon.

Jorge Luis Herrera, 34, is the family’s sole breadwinner. He’s mainly a mechanic, but he dabbles in everything and just came home from helping free a cow from barbed wire in a nearby field. Isabel Santana, 26, recently resumed her studies and is preparing to become a teacher. She was able to go to class today because Jorge Luis managed to scrape together a few pesos by fishing for crabs with his brother.

Brandon, 3, is the soul of the home. But although he’s there, clinging to his father arms, Brandon does not officially exist: he is an invisible child.

Brandon has never been registered and he’s not alone. UNICEF estimates that about 186,000 children are unrecorded. The lack of registration deprives them of their most basic rights. None of them will be able to receive medical care, be vaccinated or attend school.

In Brandon’s case, a problem in the tendons of his left ankle impedes his ability to walk normally, his vision is impaired in one eye and he has a slight paralysis in his left hand. The afflictions could be hereditary, but they could also have originated from ailments Isabel suffered during pregnancy that went untreated.

Parents play with their child in the Dominican Republic
UNICEF LAC/2017/Reca

Isabel, Jorge Luis and Brandon. “I want the best for him. To study and to be whatever he wants to be," says Jorge Luis.

Invisible children

As long as these children remain unregistered, what many in the world take for granted will be out of reach for the rest of their lives. They cannot marry, have a bank account, vote, own property or have a passport. In fact, officially, they have no name or surname.

In the Dominican Republic, 17.6 per cent of children under the age of five are not registered in the civil registry. The country has one of the lowest coverage of timely birth registration in Latin America and the Caribbean. Only 41 per cent of children born in public maternity hospitals are registered before leaving these facilities.

Across Latin America and the Caribbean, the birth of about four million children under five years of age has never been recorded as of 2013 – nearly as many as the combined populations of Cuba and Uruguay’s capital cities.

Isabel explains that when she gave birth, Jorge Luis was working in neighboring Haiti and both had to be present for the registration. “When he came back we went to the register and there was no one in the office. It was a Thursday and we had to wait until Monday, but with the birth expenses, medicines and milk, we couldn’t afford to be away from home so we had to go back.” Since then, this low-income family has not been able to do so.

They need to travel to the country's capital Santo Domingo, about 50 miles away, but the trip can take more than four hours by public transport.

UNICEF research shows that the child population without birth certificates is mainly from families marginalized in other areas of life. While 39.2 per cent of children under 5 years old in the poorest quintile are not registered, the rate drops to 6.6 per cent in families with higher resources. The consequences of this exclusion are so serious that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child compel States to provide the immediate and free guarantee of this right.

Parents and child walking in the Dominican Republic
UNICEF LAC/2017/Reca

Brandon (centre) is among the 17.6 per cent of children under the age of five not registered in the civil registry.

Realizing children’s rights

To guarantee the right to identity, UNICEF is working with the Central Electoral Board – the institution responsible for the civil registry of persons – the Ministries of Health and Education, and civil society, to achieve universal birth registration in hospitals and promote late enrollment campaigns.

The main goal is to ensure no child is left out of school or without public health. As a result of this work, thousands of children have recovered their rights in the country. But thousands more still need to be reached.

Meanwhile, Jorge Luis focuses all his efforts on bringing home some money to cover the most basic needs while Isabel is pursuing improving the family situation with her studies. “Although our situation is not very good, we will make the effort as soon as we can,” says Isabel. “I want the best for him,” adds Jorge Luis, “to study and to be whatever he wants to be.”