Making Every Child Count: Birth Registration in the Pacific

By Lucy Swinnen
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Progress is being made to achieve complete birth registration across Pacific Island nations by 2024, but more needs to be done. Achieving full birth registration across Pacific Island nations is crucial to empowering citizens with civil, political and legal rights.

A recent initiative, “Get in the Picture“, is committed to improving birth and death registration in the Pacific Islands. This initiative is supported by Governments of the Pacific Islands in conjunction with the Brisbane Accord Group (BAG). The BAG was established in 2010 to support and facilitate investment across the region in civil registration and vital statistics; its major members include the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, World Health Organisation, UNICEF, The Australian Bureau of Statistics, The University of Queensland and Fiji National University.

Birth registration is the legal recognition by the state of the birth of a citizen. A lack of formal recognition by the state prevents individuals from accessing their basic legal rights and condemns them to a life in the shadows.

In many countries, lack of birth registration prevents individuals from accessing basic services such as healthcare and education. Without proof of age or citizenship, unregistered minors can be prosecuted, conscripted, married and treated as adults by the state. They are unable to vote in elections, obtain a passport or report a crime.

The vast majority of unregistered births occur in developing countries – particularly amongst marginalised, poor and remote communities. Excessive fees related to registration, a lack of parental education, and the difficulty of accessing official governmental services are the main factors that prevent people from registering births. Lack of registration at birth blocks the most vulnerable members of society from fully participating as citizens and receiving basic protection under the law. This is a phenomenon of stateless people within states.

Registering all births is the first step in providing individuals with coverage and access to national legal and social frameworks. According to UNICEF’s 2013 report, Every Child’s Birth Right: Inequities and trends in birth registration, registration is “not only a fundamental right in itself but a key to ensuring the fulfillment of other rights.”

According to the report, as of 2013 there were 230 million children around the world who were under five years old and had not been registered at birth. The Asia-Pacific region contained almost 60 per cent of the world’s unregistered children.

In contrast to many Caribbean Island states, which have near universal birth registration due to the high volume of international travel, Pacific Island nations have much lower levels of registration. It is estimated that less than 50 per cent of births are registered in Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Timor-Leste. Across the region, registration is closely linked to the delivery of health services and improving infant mortality rates.

According to the recent UNICEF report, children whose births are attended by a health professional and those who are immunised are more likely to have their birth registered. Improving birth registration needs to be integrated with responses to maternal-infant health programs. Birth statistics are crucial to improving overall health outcomes. The ability to develop and implement effective health policies is hampered without reliable and concrete population statistics. Without accurate data on births trends, issues relating to early childhood development and infant mortality cannot be accurately assessed.

In addition to health outcomes, birth registration can impact social mobility and labour access for individuals. Many countries require a birth certificate in order to enrol children in school. In addition, Pacific Islanders who seek labour mobility are unable to legally migrate, and are consequently cut out of the international labour economy.

Solutions for rural and remote birth registration require innovative approaches and implementation. UNICEF child protection officer Noriko Izumi reported that SMS has been used in Nigeria since January 2011 to gather birth registrations from around the country. This enables authorities to view birth registration on an online database, and highlights problem areas where local government offices are not registering births.

In the past two decades birth registration across the Pacific has increased, and members of the BAG continue to support investments in civil registration and vital statistics programs. In 2013, birth registration in children under the age of five improved from 40 per cent to 52 per cent in Vanuatu, and 68 per cent to 82 per cent in Kiribati. The Solomon Islands digitalised birth records in 2005 in parallel with training staff to store records through formal and reliable processes.

Papua New Guinea previously had only one birth registration site for its entire population of seven million spread across 460,000 square kilometers, according to the 2013 UNICEF report. The numbers of children registered in Port Moresby have increased from three per cent in 2002 to 56 per cent in 2005. Registration has been decentralised in several provinces, with schools and health facilities declared compulsory registration points.

Greater coordination between agencies and the strengthening of civil institutions are needed to achieve full registration across the Asia-Pacific by 2024. By continuing to raise awareness of the transformative potential of birth registration, the goal to count every child, and make every child count, is within sight.

Lucy Swinnen is a journalist at The Advocate Newspaper.

Feature image: Taro Taylor/Flickr

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