Every child counts
Birth registration is the first right of every child. Yet, around the world approximately 230 million children under the age of five have not been registered, and more than 100 developing countries do not have adequate systems in place to register key life events, such as births, deaths, and marriages. When children are registered and receive identity documentation, they are better protected from early marriage or from being trafficked and forced to work in exploitative conditions. Failure to register births may lead to statelessness and further marginalise already vulnerable groups, including girls and young women. Registering children at birth can therefore, be the first step to reducing statelessness and in securing their recognition before the law, safeguarding their rights, and ensuring that any violation of these rights does not go unnoticed. In simpler terms: birth registration can be the first step towards being able to go to school, get medical treatment, get a job, and more.
For States, having a section of their population that is not officially registered as citizens can have major and enduring implications. If governments do not have the most accurate, up-to-date data on the people in a country, how can they then effectively respond to those people’s needs at the best of times, let alone after there has been a major emergency? How can governments build schools and employ the right number of teachers if they do not know how many children have been born? How can children be vaccinated if nobody knows they exist? And in the post-2015 era, how can governments measure progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) when not all children are counted? How could they reach the most marginalised and furthest behind first, when such groups are invisible to the state?
A strong Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) system means a government has the most reliable source of data possible on a population at its fingertips. The development of such comprehensive civil registration systems to gather accurate, timely, disaggregated data is vital to inform decision making, programming and planning, and therefore also key to the overall implementation of the newly adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Recognising the fundamental importance of birth registration and the need to strengthen a country’s underlying CRVS system to address the root causes of poor registration more comprehensively, Plan International has long promoted universal birth registration as part of a robust and comprehensive CRVS system to make every child visible.
As a result of our ‘Count Every Child’ initiative, Plan International helped register more than 40 million children around the world with activities in 36 programme countries. In particular, our work has focused on increasing awareness of the importance of birth registration among the population; protecting vital documents in countries where natural disasters are frequent; decentralising the civil registration system to prevent it from collapsing during emergencies; and integrating birth registration into social systems, including through training health care professionals to facilitate the registration of new-borns.
In Thailand for example, Plan International has worked in close collaboration with the Ministry of Interior, other NGOs and communities to facilitate the legalisation of the status of stateless children. We have provided funding for families and children in Chiang Rai to participate in a state-sponsored DNA testing project. The project aims to prove genetic ties between parents who were given Thai citizenship after they gave birth to their children and their children who were not registered at their birth. We also run a legal clinic project for children and youth who were born to Thai parents but do not have birth certificates, teaching them their rights and the government channels they must navigate to apply for citizenship.
Complemented with advocacy to address weak and outdated legal frameworks, Plan International has helped to strengthen legislation on birth registration in ten countries, resulting in access to a free birth certificate for more than 150 million children. At the international level, Plan International—together with partners—managed to successfully place birth registration at the United Nation’s agenda through the adoption of the first Human Rights Council resolution on the importance of birth registration in March 2012, and one on birth registration within CRVS systems in 2015. A UNHCR Executive Committee Conclusion on civil registration in humanitarian settings was also adopted in 2013. During the negotiations of the post-2015 development agenda, Plan International and others successfully advocated for the inclusion of a target on universal birth registration.
As this new era in development unfolds, Plan International will continue to work to ensure that every child counts. Building upon our earlier success, our Birth Registration Innovation Team is now looking to improve birth registration services using innovation and technology, including the use of digital birth registration systems to reach remote areas and hard-to-reach communities. Additionally, we will continue to promote universal birth registration as part of a comprehensive CRVS system, since we believe it is the foundational step to realise all children’s rights, as well as the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda’s promise and aspiration to leave no one behind. After all, well-functioning civil registration systems will be essential to bring about accountability for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, as they can provide the most reliable basis for monitoring multiple SDG targets. It not only contributes to ensuring governments can accurately plan and budget for the provision of essential services guaranteed through the SDGs, it also helps to ensure that governments are able to meet their commitment to leave no one behind and to reach the furthest behind first.
Girls, for example, are too often hidden from sight—not just in their communities, but also in the statistics that drive government policy. When their births or (early) marriages have not been registered, they are effectively made invisible. Until we can at the very least count them, the chances of transforming the position of girls in society remains vanishingly small. It is for exactly this reason that Plan International will continue to make every girl and every boy visible in the eyes of the law, so that they count and can claim their rights.