Birth Registration: The Missing Link of Child Protection

It's really a simple concept. Every child, no matter where they live or what their circumstances, should be acknowledged by their governments of their existence. A birth certificate, a piece of paper or a digital record with a name, date and location is a key step to child survival and child protection, especially in developing countries. Kids need education. Kids need food and water. Kids need safe spaces. Kids need a voice in their governments. Kids need to stay healthy. Without birth registration none of these things are possible.

There are three main reasons why birth registration is crucial:

Birth registration entitles a child to rights granted by their government.

Without birth registration, a child is invisible in the eyes of their government. Because there is no way to legally recognize an unregistered child as having a nationality, the child loses entitlement to all services offered by their country. Education, welfare, health care, even legal services such as being able to report crime are not options given to the unregistered. These are fundamental human rights. Without birth registration, a child is seen as less than human. Even simple things such as being able to open a bank account or getting a drivers' license or a passport become impossible for unregistered children.

Birth certificates confirm the age of a child.

With birth registration, children are legally protected from being denied a childhood. Along with a slew of other issues, children shouldn't be soldiers. Children shouldn't be brides. Children shouldn't be laborers. Not only are these experiences traumatic, and in many cases fatal, but they also put a road block in the child's future and their country's development. Child soldiers and child laborers miss out on education, possibly the most valuable tool for ending the poverty cycle. Both former child soldiers and child laborers become psychologically scarred, making it difficult to maintain stable lifestyles even long after their trauma. Child brides are more likely to be illiterate and victims of domestic abuse, as well as more likely to contract HIV or die in childbirth (the No. 1 killer of girls under age 15).

All three of these child protection issues are more prevalent in areas where fewer children are registered at birth. The more unstable a country is, the less likely a child born there is to be registered. The more unstable a country is, the more likely a child will be needed for war or labor or marriage. Birth registration requires a strong infrastructure that many developing countries, especially ones facing extreme poverty or war, lack. This is why war-torn Somalia and Liberia rank lowest in percentages of children registered at birth, staggering at just 3 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

The Power of Data.

Records of who is living in their country enables governments to analyze their demographics better. These statistical analyses allow for better informed decision making by the government. With 229 million children under the age of five currently undocumented, governments are unaware of the needs and demographics of millions of people. Imagine if the United States acted as if the people of Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles simply did not exist. Multiply that effect by seven, and you have India, where 71 million children are currently undocumented. Decisions made by governments should reflect its people. How can that be done when governments can't recognize whether their people exist?

The Solutions

The key to establishing high birth registration rates is a strong, organized government to record births. Actions such as policy reform, increasing awareness of birth registry, and the integration of birth certification into other government services, such as welfare and education, are all effective in increasing birth registration rates. Without this strong infrastructure, millions of children go unrecorded each year. This is why the Girls Count Act is such a powerful piece of legislation. The Girls Count Act was introduced in the House of Representatives is October 2013, and advocates for the U.S. to fully support birth registration in developing countries. The bill requires no increased funding, just a more effective reallocation of funds to support birth registration programs. The bill supports the registration of both boys and girls, but especially girls because they are disproportionately less registered, despite the fact that girls' education has a higher return than boys'. The Girls Count Act currently is going through the House of Representatives and has twenty cosponsors, with just an estimated 6 percent chance of being enacted (although this is slightly more promising than it sounds; only 3 percent of bills were enacted into law from 2011-2013).

With international support like this, one day every child will be visible to their governments. Every child deserves to be seen, and it starts with a birth certificate.