What is birth registration and why does it matter?

Without legal proof of identity, children are left uncounted and invisible.

by Leah Selim
Convention on the Rights of the Child: A two-month-old girl receives her birth registration in Ghana.
10 December 2019

In some countries, birth registration is taken for granted as the norm following childbirth. But in too many others, it is a critical step missing to establish a child’s legal proof of identity. Without it, children are invisible to their governments, meaning they could miss out on their rights being protected and upheld, as well as essential services like health care and education. 

The births of around one quarter of children under the age of 5 worldwide have never been recorded. These children's lives matter, but they cannot be protected if governments don't even know they exist.

What is birth registration?

Birth registration is the process of recording a child’s birth. It is a permanent and official record of a child’s existence, and provides legal recognition of that child’s identity. 

At a minimum, it establishes a legal record of where the child was born and who his or her parents are. Birth registration is required for a child to get a birth certificate – his or her first legal proof of identity.

Not only is birth registration a fundamental human right, it also helps ensure that children’s other rights are upheld – like the rights to protection from violence, and essential social services like health care and justice. The information collected from birth registration records helps governments decide where and how to spend money, and what areas to focus on for development programmes, such as education and immunization.

What is the difference between birth registration and a birth certificate?

Broadly speaking, birth registration is the process of officially logging a birth with a government authority, and a birth certificate is the paper issued by the state to the parent or caregiver as a result of this process. A birth certificate proves that registration has occurred. 

Birth registration and birth certificates ideally go hand in hand. However, because the processes for issuing birth certificates can vary depending on location, a child might be registered but never receive a birth certificate.

A woman sits with her child on her lap in front of birth registration forms, Ethiopia
UNICEF Ethiopia/2017/Michael Tsegaye
Tegene Erke registers her nine-month-old daughter Alemtsehay Chekele. They live in the Amhara region of Ethiopia, which established a Vital Records Registration Agency in 2016. In its first year, it registered 79 per cent of vital records. Since then, the region became a role model for other regions in Ethiopia.

What happens if a child isn’t registered?

Birth registration is the only legal way for a child to get a birth certificate.

This legal proof of identity can help protect children from violence, abuse and exploitation. Without a birth certificate, children are unable to prove their age, which puts them at a much higher risk of being forced into early marriage or the labour market, or recruited into armed forces. 

It can also help protect migrant and refugee children against family separation, trafficking and illegal adoption. Without it, these children are at a much higher risk of statelessness, meaning they do not have legal ties to any country, including a nationality.

Without a birth certificate, many children can’t get routine vaccines and other healthcare services. They may be unable to attend school or register for exams. As a result, their future job opportunities are extremely limited, which makes them more likely to live in poverty.

In young adulthood, children will need this official identification for basic but important transactions like opening a bank account, registering to vote, getting a passport, entering the formal job market, buying or inheriting property, or receiving social assistance. 

How many children aren’t registered?

Birth registration is almost universal in most high-income countries. But in low- and middle-income countries, on average, one in four children under age 5 (166 million) are not registered. Of these 166 million children, half live in just five countries: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Even when children are registered, they may not have proof of registration. An estimated 237 million children under age 5 worldwide currently do not have a birth certificate.

A child and mother hold a birth certificate, Myanmar
“All of my children already have their birth certificates," says a mother in Myanmar. "Before it was not easy if you did not register your children before they turn one years old. Now, they said until children turn 10 years, they can be registered in their township without the need to go to the state health director.”

Why aren’t all children being registered at birth?

There are a wide range of reasons why children don’t get registered. In most circumstances, these 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. 

In other cases, parents may be unaware of birth registration or may not understand how important it is. Cost is also a significant barrier: parents may be unable to afford the costs associated with registration, including travel to registration sites or late fees. 

Certain ethnic or religious minorities have lower birth registration rates than the national average. This may be because their culture places more 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 when it comes to registering their children. Some are unable to register their children at all, while others may only be able to do so with the father present.

How is birth registration a gender inequality issue?

In many parts of the world, women do not have the same rights or ability to register their child’s birth as men. There are still 25 countries where women do not have the same rights as men to legally pass their nationality to their own children. This kind of gender discrimination in national  laws and policies needs to be reviewed and revised to eliminate the negative impacts on communities.

A mother may face gender discrimination when she tries to register her child, for something as simple as not having an ID or marriage certificate, or if the father was not present or named on the birth form.

Women may be unable to register their children if the father is unknown, or if he refuses to acknowledge paternity – such as in cases of survivors of rape or incest.

Lack of birth registration can also reinforce existing gender gaps in areas like education. Worldwide, 132 million girls are out of school, and these girls are more likely than out-of-school boys to never enrol in school. Not having a birth certificate makes it even more difficult for them to do so. And girls without birth certificates who are unable to legally prove their age are also even more susceptible to child marriage, after which they are much less likely to complete their education.

A child's footprint is recorded, Guatemala
A newborn is being identified before birth registration at the General Hospital of San Juan de Dios in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

How can birth registration rates be improved?

Legal identity, including birth registration, is a human right. For every child to fulfil this right, governments must improve and strengthen civil registration systems.

Improving birth registration rates can be done in a number of ways, including eliminating registration fees and late fees, or giving cash grants to families who register their children. Increasing the number of trained registrars, and/or sending them to remote areas in mobile registration units can also help governments reach more vulnerable populations. 

Technology offers a promising solution as well. The Governments of Pakistan and Tanzania have introduced smartphone apps for birth registration, which allow registrars to digitally collect and upload birth registration data to a protected, centralized system, in real-time.

Ultimately, we need to make birth registration the new normal in communities where it is not regularly practiced. This means advocating for governments to revise their laws and policies, and working with communities to shift attitudes and behaviours – showing the value and benefits of birth registration to create a demand for it.

What is UNICEF doing to help?

UNICEF has been a key player in birth registration globally for over 30 years. In 2018, we worked with governments and communities to register over 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, innovations in registration technology, and increasing community awareness about birth registration.

We also work with other sectors, like health and education, to integrate birth registration into their work. This includes increasing birth registration in hospitals and health centres, including birth registration in immunization drives, and linking birth registration systems to national cash transfer system and student databases.

The world has made substantial progress on birth registration over the past 20 years. Today, around 75 per cent of children under 5 are registered, compared to 60 per cent in 2000. Without this progress, an additional 100 million children would be unregistered today. 

But countries need more investment and commitment to achieve universal birth registration by 2030. Read more about UNICEF’s recommendations here.