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Advancing civil registration and vital statistics through the Centre of Excellence


The major events in a person’s life — births, marriages, divorces and deaths — are captured by civil registration and vital statistics systems, ensuring everyone has a legal identity. While most countries have these systems in place as a given, many still have significant coverage gaps. Globally, the births of tens of millions of children and an estimated two thirds of deaths are never registered, and thus not counted in official data — a disproportionate number of them women and girls.

Many people live their entire lives unregistered, making them unable to claim their fundamental rights to education and health care, to pass property to their children, or to exercise their civil and political rights, including the right to vote. 

To redress these gaps and lift millions of people out of invisibility, IDRC founded the Centre of Excellence on Civil Registration and Vital Statistics in 2015, co-funded by Global Affairs Canada, and grew it into the go-to knowledge repository for experts in this field, national statistical offices and policymakers worldwide. In 2021, IDRC transferred the centre to UNFPA to scale up direct impact at the country level and leverage UNFPA’s global reach and infrastructure.

Research on global progress

Much critical research has been conducted in the first two and a half years of the IDRC-UNFPA partnership. One key finding highlighted the under-investment in marriage and divorce registration, showcasing the importance of these statistics for a holistic approach to civil registration and vital statistics. It also draws attention to promising practices to measure the completeness, quality and determinants of marriage and divorce registration in countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. 

The Centre of Excellence has made important headway in measuring socio-economic and demographic disparities in legal identity systems and in assessing the effectiveness of technology-based solutions for more inclusive societies. This work highlights the importance of civil registration and vital statistics and legal identity systems in addressing social, demographic and economic inequalities.

A mother and her newborn at the Regent Community Health Centre, Sierra Leone.
Mother with newborn receiving a mother's kit at the UNFPA-supported Regent Community Health Centre, Regent, Sierra Leone.

Vital statistics through a gender lens

Since its inception, the Centre of Excellence has spearheaded a strong commitment by the civil registration and vital statistics community to gender equality, amplified with the move to UNFPA. As an absolute priority for both Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy and UNFPA’s Strategic Plan, the Centre of Excellence has taken concrete actions to systematically document the extent of under-registration and systemic barriers for women and girls. 

The centre has partnered with the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to End Child Marriage and collaborated with Pusat Kajian dan Advokasi Perlindungan dan Kualitas Hidup Anak (PUSKAPA) at Universitas Indonesia, shedding new light on the relationship between enhanced birth and marriage registration and efforts to end child marriage. To improve the counting of the often-undercounted women’s deaths in Tunisia, the centre partnered with the Institut National de Santé Publique, Tunisia, to publish analytical research on systems improvements in death registration. Although death registration completeness improved from 38% in 2013 to 61% in 2017, gaps remain, particularly for maternal deaths.

Turning guidance into action

In August 2023, the centre convened global experts, government delegates and key stakeholders on marriage registration, in partnership with Statistics South Africa, at the 9th Global Forum on Gender Statistics. A session on marriage registration was also held at the Festival de Datos in Uruguay in November 2023, which rounded out the cycle of events geared towards making tangible change in registering vital events, particularly for women and girls.

Other notable recent events included a side event at the 2023 UN General Assembly’s Sustainable Development Goals Summit co-hosted by the Centre of Excellence, UNICEF and UNDP, as well as a two-day UNFPA-UN Statistics Division Expert Group Meeting (EGM) that discussed synergies between census, systems and administrative records. The EGM identified practical recommendations and country best practices on how censuses can assess the inclusiveness of civil registration and vital statistics and identity management systems. It also explored how civil registration and vital statistics systems can be used alongside other administrative registers to support high-quality traditional and register-based censuses.

“Going forward, we are particularly excited about the centre’s work focussing on advancing gender-transformative civil registration systems, documenting insights, conducting research, and fostering strategic partnerships to strengthen these systems globally,” said Priscilla Idele, chief of UNFPA’s Population and Development Branch.

Maximizing impact

As the IDRC-UNFPA partnership embarks on the next phase, maximizing in-country impact through civil registration and vital statistics is both the goal and the measuring stick. “We are very pleased with how the Centre of Excellence has developed in the first years in its new home at UNFPA,” said Montasser Kamal, director of Global Health at IDRC. “The knowledge generated and political will garnered puts the centre in an excellent position to firmly direct the gaze at country-level impact. Making the invisible visible is not a trivial task, but our success is crucial to improving the lives and livelihoods of millions, particularly women and girls, and it can only happen directly in the target countries. We look forward to achieving this direct impact as we enter a new phase of our collaboration.”