A name, an official identity, and a nationality recognised by everyone: most of us take these things for granted. Yet, for nearly a quarter-billion children around the world, including tens of millions in sub-Saharan Africa, such basic rights are unattainable luxuries.
According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef), the births of about 230-million children under the age of five — about one-third of the world’s total — have never been registered. Asia is home to 59% of these unregistered children and sub-Saharan Africa a further 37%. All of them grow up “invisible,” even in their own country.
The problem is particularly acute in certain African countries: only 3% of children in Somalia, 4% in Liberia, and 7% in Ethiopia have official papers, for example.
Children born in rural areas far from administrative centres are less likely to be registered than those living in cities. Those born into the poorest 20% of households are prone to slip through bureaucratic cracks, and children of ethnic-minority or refugee families are even less likely to appear in a civil registry.
Many parents, because of limited formal education or ignorance of official procedures, settle instead for rituals, ceremonies or just birth records issued by hospitals. Political crises, wars and internal displacements aggravate the problem: parents fleeing to safety with their children are typically not preoccupied with registering them properly.
Unregistered children are born, live and die in anonymity. With their physical and legal existence unnoticed by national authorities, they are often condemned to lives spent on the margins of society.
They cannot prove their age, parentage or identity. They can’t get official papers such as a passport. They find it extremely hard to be able to use to basic services such as healthcare, education and social assistance. Unregistered children are also frequently among the first to suffer discrimination and mistreatment. Because their age cannot be proved, they often become victims of child labour or trafficking and, for girls, forced marriage.
As African governments seek to increase registration rates among their populations, they should keep two fundamental principles in mind.
First, although there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the wide disparities in registration between and within different countries, successful approaches in one place could inspire governments elsewhere.
For example, some countries, including Côte d’Ivoire, have established “mobile courts” that travel around the country and enable unregistered people to get a birth certificate.
Developing sustainable initiatives requires the full commitment of African governments, policymakers and nongovernmental organisations, as well as the continued assistance of international agencies. For this reason, last October I met Unicef’s regional director for West and Central Africa, Marie-Pierre Poirier, whose commitment and work I greatly admire. We discussed the status of children’s rights in the region, including registration of births, issuance of birth certificates for all children, and the fight against child labour.
Civil society organisations have a crucial role to play in reducing the enormous numbers of “invisible” African children. The Children of Africa Foundation, of which I am president, was set up 20 years ago to care for disadvantaged and vulnerable children and works in 12 African countries. Its projects in Côte d’Ivoire include the Children’s Hut in Abidjan, healthcare initiatives such as ophthalmological caravans and the Mother-Child Hospital of Bingerville, and educational schemes such as a Bibliobus and school supply kits.
Additionally, I have launched a major project together with Côte d’Ivoire’s ministers of interior and justice that enables any child enrolling in sixth grade to obtain a certificate of studies, thereby ensuring that they can receive a birth certificate. Our hope is that other countries on the continent will follow suit.
This is a global crisis in urgent need of solutions. Every case is an individual tragedy that leaves a child at serious risk of discrimination or worse, and leads to emotional damage that can last a lifetime. Only by upholding for all children their most basic right — an identity — can we ensure that no child is left behind. — © Project Syndicate
Dominique Nouvian Ouattara is the first lady of Côte d’Ivoire