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Birth registration is the basis for advancing gender equality and children’s rights


Irina Dincu

Senior program specialist, IDRC

Deirdre Appel

Program Manager

Shaida Badiee

Managing Director

Many people take their birth certificate for granted. It is an unremarkable bureaucratic certainty in many lives, tucked away in a drawer or filing cabinet until it’s needed to obtain a driver’s license or passport, or to register for marriage or divorce. Rarely do the bearers of these documents appreciate them for what they truly represent - a fundamental human right to a name, a document that establishes family ties and relationships, and an important tool for social protection.

In the developing world, the absence of a birth certificate can be seen and felt in powerful ways. The births of approximately 230 million children under age five - 35% of the world's total - are unrecorded. Without a birth certificate, individuals are easily deprived of their rights.

Birth registration: a foundation for gender equality and empowerment

Birth registration - the official recording of a child’s birth by a government agency - is one of the most important events in a child’s life. It is key to accessing a range of social services, in addition to  providing a legal identity that allows them to assert their right to vote, apply for a scholarship, or inherit property, to name just a few advantages. Together, these rights and access to services form a basis for women’s economic and political empowerment.

A well-functioning birth registration system also helps governments plan, budget, and monitor their population accurately. Birth registration enables governments to plan for the delivery of health services, including pre and post-natal care, and to design social and educational programs that meet the needs of mothers and their children.

Effective systems of civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) are becoming more widely discussed as a development issue. The Sustainable Development Goals[LC1]  (SDGs) require 67 indicators derived from CRVS systems, but the gender dimensions of birth registration are often overlooked.

A mother’s status influences birth registration rates

A mother’s wealth and education impact the likelihood that she will register the births of her children of either sex. Her urban or rural location, caste, religion, and age also effect the likelihood of registration. Certain vulnerable populations such as migrants, indigenous people, and refugees are particularly at risk of not registering their children, a situation that exposes the children to exploitation and rights violations. Other barriers include a lack of knowledge of how to register, registration costs, and difficulties reaching registration locations. These barriers prevent governments from obtaining data about the poorest and hardest to reach populations - the very people that need services most.

Hidden gender biases also pose challenges for women who wish to register their children. Legislation or custom may require a father’s or male representative’s signature or a marriage certificate to register the child. For example, in Nepal, Nicaragua, and Bhutan, children cannot be registered permanently without their father’s or grandfather’s name. One study found that social stigmas can also affect registration, because women hesitated to request a birth certificate if they did not know the father’s name.

An unregistered birth can prevent a mother from obtaining crucial services for her child, such as free or subsidized vaccinations or immunizations, treatment from a health facility or government provider, and enrollment in school. 

Using birth registration to combat early and forced child marriage

A birth certificate may also serve as a tool to prevent child marriage. If a girl’s age can’t be proven when she is about to marry, how can laws that set a minimum age for marriage be enforced? For example, Plan International’s Girls Not Brides initiative documents the story of Rubi, a young girl from Bangladesh who used her birth certificate to avoid an arranged marriage when she was 15 years old. Coupled with proper policy enforcement, birth registration can help combat the epidemic of child marriages that affects one in three girls in the developing world.

Progress towards universal birth registration

Between 2000 and 2010, the global average of birth registration rose from 58% to 65%. India, Mali, Nepal, Uganda, and Vietnam have made significant improvements. These successes are due in part to the work of UNICEF, WHO, UNESCAP, UNECA, and other government agencies that have prioritized  the improvement of CRVS systems in their national and international development agendas.

However, if the world is to provide legal identity for all, including birth registration, by 2030 (SDG target 16.9), much more work is needed. Four critical areas for national action are:

  • assessing and removing legal barriers to registration
  • advocating for and researching the importance of strong CRVS systems
  • monitoring coverage and access to birth registration data
  • integrating CRVS into national statistical system plans, capacity building, and resource mobilization efforts.

By making the invisible visible — through legal identity and rights, and data that counts the most vulnerable people — we can contribute to achieving gender equality.

Irina Dincu is the senior program specialist for IDRC’s Centre of Excellence for Civil Registration and Vital Statistics Systems

Shaida Badiee is managing director at Open Data Watch

Deirdre Appel is a researcher at Open Data Watch