Birth and civil registration
Two out of three children below the age of five are not registered in West and Central Africa. Across the region, rates of birth registration range from 90% in Gabon to just 4% in Liberia. Children in urban areas and from better-off families are much more likely to be registered at birth than those from poor households living in rural areas (57% in urban areas, 33% in rural areas).
Birth registration, the official recording of the birth of a child by the government, is a fundamental human right and an essential means of protecting a child's right to a name and identity. Both the Convention of the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child recognize the right of every child to be registered immediately after birth. The right to be registered is a key protection right. Without legal registration, other rights are difficult to claim. Birth registration establishes formal proof of a child’s name, existence and age. This proof can help protect the child against child marriage, under-age recruitment into the armed forces, and against child labour. By having a national identity, it is easier to fight abuse and child trafficking. Proof of age can protect adolescents from being prosecuted and sentenced as adults. A birth certificate, as proof of birth, can assist in tracing support unaccompanied and separated children. Not being counted leaves a child vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, which is particularly crucial for children from marginalised groups.
Birth registration may be required for children to access health care, education and other social services and social assistance. Birth registration contributes to gender equality, reinforcing equal treatment of girls and boys. Access to social services and transfers should not be made contingent on birth registration.
Birth registration is also an essential basis for a country’s statistics and for planning of social services. An effective civil registration system provides demographic data that allow a country to keep track of the condition of its population, including vital information about the situation of children. The use of these data can lead to more accurate planning and implementation of development policies and programmes (e.g. school construction), and greater success in securing development funding. Birth registration is necessary for ID cards, passports, and for migration.
Despite efforts to promote universal birth registration, provision for registration of all children at birth is still a major challenge for many countries in the region. Only 40% of children in West and Central Africa are registered at birth. Children from the poorest households are twice as likely to be unregistered as children from the richest households. Other reasons for non-registration of infants includes: discrimination against ethnic or religious minorities or refugee populations; the exclusive use of official languages in birth registration forms and procedures; fear of discrimination and persecution; or the incompatibility of birth registration with local realities (e.g. cultural practices where children are only named several weeks after birth).
Efforts to increase birth registration rates have to be part of a broader, well-functioning civil registration system, which includes registration of births, marriages and deaths. While birth registration rates remain at about 40% across the region, immunisation rates are upwards of 70%, in part due to the better coverage and resourcing of health services compared with civil registration. A growing number of countries is using the immunisation and maternal and child health check-ups to register births. This is a cost-effective way to improve birth registration rates. Another innovation that is piloted is the use of mobile phone text messaging to transmit information about new-born children to the civil registrar’s office. These are just two innovations that are being explored in order to accelerate and take to scale birth registration in the region.
However, technical solutions have not been sufficient to maintain high registration rates. Birth registration data demonstrate that there has not been steady progress in countries in the region. While some countries (e.g. Ghana and the Gambia) have advanced significantly over the last years, others have lost the gains that had been previously achieved (e.g. Nigeria, CAR, Chad). There is a need for greater political commitment and investment in comprehensive civil registration systems to ensure that efforts to register children at birth meet the required standards, are consistent and sustainable. The Conference of African Ministers responsible for Civil Registration held in August 2010 in Addis Ababa has given renewed impetus to continent-wide efforts to promote and strengthen civil registration and vital statistics systems. This initiative, coupled with innovative technological solutions and new partnerships across health and education sectors, offers the most ambitious and promising undertaking to achieve universal civil registration across the continent. The support and encouragement provided by the African Union and its Regional Economic Commissions (ECOWAS, ECCAS, etc.) will be vital to ensure that countries do not slip back and that progress made is maintained.