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Giving Children an Identity – Right from the Beginning

African Ministers to agree on steps to strengthen civil registration throughout the continent

DURBAN, South Africa, 6 September 2012 (UNICEF) – Amid growing recognition of the crucial role of effective civil registration for social and economic development, Ministers from 46 African countries have gathered in Durban, South Africa, to discuss how to strengthen their national civil registration and vital statistics systems through innovation, integration in health services and partnerships. The two-day ministerial conference has been organized by the African Union Commission, the African Development Bank, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and other UN organizations, including UNICEF, as well as other partners.

“Children without a birth certificate have no legal existence. Birth registration is key for children to be protected from exploitation and harm, it is essential for them to claim fundamental rights, such as access to health care and education or for orphans to inherit from their parents,” said Elke Wisch, UNICEF Deputy Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, during the opening of the Second Conference of African Ministers responsible for Civil Registration. “However, civil registration is much more: governments can only plan and invest properly in social services if they have detailed information on how many children are living in different regions of the country, and how many people have died due to which causes.”

Civil registration covers the registration of births, deaths, marriages and divorce. Efforts to strengthen civil registration systems received a boost in 2010, when, for the first time, forty African Ministers in charge of Civil Registration met in Addis Ababa to agree on a roadmap towards reforming national civil registration systems. The Durban Conference provides an opportunity for countries to take stock of progress made over the past two years and to reinforce commitments for future investments in civil registration and vital statistics systems in Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest birth registration rates in the world. On average, only 38 per cent of children below the age of 5 have a birth certificate. However, there are some countries who have achieved very high rates of birth registration: South Africa has some of the most sophisticated systems of birth and death registration in the world; Egypt has demonstrated that birth registration rates of 99% are achievable in the African context. Countries such as Djibouti, Burundi, Togo and Gabon all register well over 80% of new births.

There are enormous disparities between and within countries. For example, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs and Civil Registration in Namibia, birth registration rates range from 40 per cent in remote rural areas to 90 per cent among the better serviced urban areas. In many African countries, birth registration rates have declined in recent years due to the lack of sustained political commitment and related factors, such as outdated laws and policies, limited institutional capacities, direct and indirect costs of registration, cultural barriers and lack of awareness among families about the importance of registering their children.

The Roadmap to progress

The Conference calls on countries to integrate registration services in health services and health information systems, since the coverage of health services is much greater than that of civil registration facilities. In Namibia, for example, 95 per cent of pregnant women attend ante-natal care services. Within two years of introducing birth registration facilities in 23 hospitals, the number of infants registered at birth increased by fifty per cent. The progress was made possible thanks to a strategic partnership between the Ministries of Health and Home Affairs. As a direct results of the registration of births, the number of beneficiaries of the Child Welfare Grant rose from 100,000 in 2008 to 140,000 in 2011.

In Nigeria, Africa’s largest country with a population of 160 million, just 30% of children are registered at birth. Innovative partnerships with the health sector and the use of mobile technologies are offering the possibility to achieve greater coverage and to register millions of newborns who currently go unregistered.

Cote d’Ivoire is emerging from years of civil conflict. Birth and civil registration are essential components of a comprehensive peace building and reconstruction strategy to revitalize the economy, to heal ethnic divisions and to reestablish democratic political institutions.

In Uganda, where 43 per cent of children are born outside of health facilities, the government, with support from UNICEF and Uganda Telecom, has introduced an internet-based registration system using mobile phone technology. This mobile system at community level, together with a new registration system in health facilities, aims to significantly increase the rate of birth registration. In addition, UNICEF supported the introduction of a computerized birth registration facility at Mulago, one of the largest hospitals in Africa.

“Throughout the continent, many national economies grow at high speed,” said Elke Wisch. “Millions of people are using the internet on a daily basis, and there are few places in Africa where mobile phones cannot be used. But when we look at the civil registration systems, we find that they are mostly behind the times. We have to re-direct the winds of change so they can also nurture our civil registration systems. Importantly, governments and donors have to allocate greater resources to ensure that every child is registered and has an identity from birth.”

UNICEF works in 190 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations, and governments. For more information about UNICEF and its work visit:, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

For further information, please contact:

Milen Kidane, UNICEF ESARO, Child Protection Specialist in Durban: mobile + 254 705 123 041
Sue Beukes, UNICEF Africa Support Unit, in Johannesburg: mobile + 27 79 495 5935
Michael Klaus, UNICEF ESARO, Chief Communication, in Nairobi: mobile +254 716 431 880



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