Why Birth Certificates Help Fight Poverty


MOUNTAIN LAKES, New Jersey — In the developed world, people tend not to give much thought to the importance of their birth certificates. Since most developed nations register nearly all births, not many realize the important rights and privileges that birth certificates grant. In fact, children whose births are unregistered cannot benefit from social and anti-poverty programs later in life. Birth certificates are vital tools for governments and NGOs trying to fight poverty and protect human rights.

What makes birth registration so important is that it confirms an individual’s nationality, which in turn gives them access to their country’s social programs. According to UNICEF, this includes subsidized health care, immunization and education. Without a birth certificate, people cannot prove citizenship as easily and could be denied these services that help lift them out of poverty.

Birth certificates also prove age, and children whose births are registered can better protect themselves from illegal child marriages and unfair child labor laws. In addition, birth registration prevents children from being tried legally as adults and gives adults the rights to vote and seek employment. Inadequate birth registration effectively takes these important rights away from people who need them.

Despite the importance of birth registration, it does not often occur in developing countries. UNICEF estimates that 230 million children less than 5 years old, about one-third of the child population, never have their births registered. Of the unregistered children, 59 percent live in Asia and 37 percent live in Sub-Saharan Africa.

UNICEF found that one seventh of the children with registered births did not have physical certificates. Without documents proving age, children and adults have to work harder to protect their rights and receive social services. This lack of documentation effectively raises the population of unregistered children under age 5 to 290 million, or 45 percent, of the child population.

Individuals are not the only beneficiaries of birth certificates; governments, too, need strong systems of birth registration to monitor their countries’ population sizes and distributions. This helps them to address health crises within their borders. According to the World Health Organization, when countries do not consistently register births and deaths, they “cannot design effective public health policies” and therefore have trouble protecting their citizens from disease.

If governments do not have reliable information about their citizens, NGOs cannot optimally distribute aid. The WHO notes that “civil registration systems are the most reliable source of statistics on births and deaths,” and without this information they have trouble addressing health crises in developing countries. Similarly, establishing effective distribution of disaster relief supplies and food aid is harder without reliable population data.

In order to fight poverty, governments and NGOs need accurate birth registration data. Aid agencies have used different methods to increase registration and distribute birth certificates. For example, community advocacy by groups like UNICEF encourages parents in rural areas to get documents for their children. Other agencies like USAID seek to give census-taking tools to governments in developing countries, which enhances their ability to record births and deaths.

Though progress is slow, these efforts appear to have an impact. According to UNICEF, in least-developed countries, the number of children with registered births has risen to 43 percent from 32 percent in 2000. Birth certificates play a critical role in developing programs to fight poverty, and more children need registration so international development programs can work.

Ted Rappleye

Sources: USAID, World Health Organization, UNICEF 1, UNICEF 2
Photo: Laboring with love


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