December 22, 2014 – 230 million children under the age of five are not registered at birth with 59% living in Asia and 37% living in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, most of these children are ignored by health and education authorities and eventually used for child labour or child brides - and other deplorable forms of exploitation.
Children that grow up without a birth certificate have great difficulty attending school, finding a job, buying a home, voting or obtaining a passport.
The issue of birth registration arose at the Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Summit hosted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Toronto last May. Keynote speakers included Anthony Lake, the Executive Director of UNICEF, Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Seth Berkley of the GAVI Alliance, the organization that administers vaccinations to low-income countries around the world.
Last May, Prime Minister Harper promised $3.5 billion over five years in new funding for the Maternal, Newborn and Child Health initiative, which will pay for several life-saving measures including vaccinations, midwife training, vitamin supplements and birth certificates. Millions of children's lives can be saved by improving the registration of births and deaths.
“Nearly half of all children under five lack a birth certificate,” said Anthony Lake.
With the assistance from UNICEF and Canada, Tanzania is trying to tackle the issue by setting up a system that allows community health workers to register births by sending texts on their cell phones.
“Obviously, it’s a terrible tragedy when a mother dies in childbirth or a young child passes away, but what’s even more shocking is when that child passes away and never had an official existence,” said Jakaya Kikwete, the President of Tanzania.
Registering deaths is also very important because it allows government officials and other prime health stakeholders to implement programs that will keep track of what is killing people in developing countries and therefore, the opportunity to establish proactive measures to address health, education, water sanitation and housing problems.
Reliable cause of death information is not available for about six billion people.
While registering the birth of a child does not automatically mean he or she is issued a birth certificate; it is the first step towards attaining an important document that confirms their age and nationality. Without proof of age, an undocumented child may be conscripted into the army before the legal age, or could be prosecuted for a crime as an adult, UNICEF warns in its report.
David Morley, President and CEO of UNICEF Canada, suggested that the first challenge is to get the word out to each child’s family regarding basic education on how to register a child, the process it entails and the benefits it offers.
Once citizens start demanding registration, governments with inadequate record-keeping mechanisms will require assistance in establishing registry offices to collect and maintain all of the data.
Finally, a system connecting the two must be put in place to remove barriers to registration and make it easier for parents in the most remote communities.
Last November, Canada provided $20 million towards an SMS-based system (electronic data) for a birth registration project in sub-Saharan Africa, which permits health workers to register a newborn with a simple text message from a cell phone.
“Birth registration is not only a fundamental right in itself,” says UNICEF, “but also a key to ensuring the fulfilment of other rights.”
According to the “Every Newborn” series in The Lancet medical journal, 2.9 million newborns die each year before they reach 4 weeks of age and 2.6 million newborns are stillborn.
During the G8 summit in 2010, Harper launched the Muskoka Initiative pledging $1.1 billion in new funds and $1.7 billion in existing funds to what has since emerged as his signature foreign aid initiative. The Gates Foundation was a major contributor, along with several countries, to the more than $7 billion that Harper raised at the G8 summit.
New York Opens its Heart
Thousands of undocumented children that have surged across the border from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador will be enrolled in school and receive medical attention. This is first time New York City has provided essential services for undocumented minors facing deportation hearings at immigration court.
According to data from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, about 1,350 undocumented children have been placed with families throughout New York City during the past seven months. Since last October, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection recorded taking into custody 47,017 unaccompanied children under the age of 18.