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To Make Children Count, You Must First Count Children

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Blog written by Kristen Wenz, MSW

October 17 marks the 30th anniversary of International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, and birth registration is one means for helping to end the cycle of poverty. As a social worker who was recently recruited as a Child Protection Specialist and global birth registration focal point at UNICEF, I’d like to highlight the important role that we as the social service workforce can play in helping achieve the SDGs, including ending poverty in all its forms everywhere, through birth registration.

Birth registration is a key part of a civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) system in a country. More than 1/3 (67 of the 230) SDG indicators, require data generated through functioning Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) systems for effective monitoring

(World Bank Group, 2017).

Why Does Birth Registration Matter?

Birth registration and subsequent documentation (birth certificate and other legal identity documents) establishes a person’s legal existence and is considered to be a person’s first right. Children who have not had their births registered often go uncounted, and are more likely to be excluded from services such as healthcare, social services and education. Birth registration provides proof of place of birth and family ties on which nationality is determined and therefore can prevent statelessness.[1]

There are 625 million unregistered births globally for children between 0-14 years of age[2] contributing to the estimated 1.5 billion people globally who lack proof of legal identity.4 The global lack of identity is known as the ‘Scandal of Invisibility’. It is often the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society who are unregistered. Children who unable to prove their age are at risk of harmful child labor, being denied their rights to juvenile justice and may be forced to marry or be recruited into armed forces before the legal age.[3] For youth, not having a birth certificate may be an obstacle for joining the formal job sector or completing their education.[4] Later in life not having your birth registered may prevent you from registering the birth of your own children- perpetuating the cycle of exclusion and non-registration.

China’s Barefoot “Social Workers”

The “Barefoot Social Worker” or Child Welfare Directors have become the human face of a child centered, child-and HIV-sensitive social service system in rural China. Through their action, some 80,000 children are now able to enroll in school, receive vaccination, health care and social assistance. In remote communities, especially amongst migrant communities, civil registration documents were of lesser significance than a potato harvest. Without the support of the social workers, some children would have been denied an education and basic health care, including medical treatment, because they had no birth certificate or a residence identity. UNICEF provided technical assistance and financing for child welfare director positions to support community-level social work services. The model has been scaled up with government funds in more than 3,000 villages in Zhejiang, Guangdong and Shenzhen provinces. The Government of China, seeing the results, has launched an effort to build the scheme nationwide. UNICEF will continue to assist the Ministry of Civil Affairs on the development of the barefoot social worker for all communities and villages, increasing the amount and coverage of cash assistance to different categories of vulnerable children.

China’s Barefoot Social Worker, Innovating for Children, Innovation for Equity. (UNICEF, 2013)

The poorest and most marginalized populations are least likely to have their birth registered which in turn increases their vulnerability of being missed (uncounted) or denied access to essential health services. Children living in poverty are almost twice as likely to die before age five compared to children from more wealthy households.[5] Therefore unregistered children of poor households are at risk of both their births and deaths being omitted from civil registration systems, leading to an under-reporting of births and deaths for the world’s poorest.

Birth Registration for Migrants and Refugees

Knowing the number of people requiring protection and assistance determines the amount of food, water, shelter and education and health facility needs. There are an estimated 50 million children on the move in the world today. The need for solid evidence to develop better policies on child migration has never been greater. Emergencies and forced displacement of people infringe on many rights of women and children, including the right to a name and identity, from which other human and civil rights are founded. Lack of identification may prevent displaced people from returning home after an emergency. Furthermore, not having population data generated through CRVS systems, linked migrant populations pose major challenges in planning or providing services as well as monitoring the effectiveness of interventions.

The Social Service Workforce and Birth Registration

Social services are intended to support the most vulnerable members of society. As the social service workforce our job is to ensure people in need have access to the services they are entitled. If so many of the most marginalized and most in need of services are excluded from services because of a lack of identity documents, how can we fully do our jobs? If our clients are legally invisible, how can we as a workforce advocate for sufficient government resources needed to make an impact?

This year’s theme for the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty is a call to action for a path toward peaceful and inclusive societies. To ensure vulnerable families are fully included and receive the services they are entitled to, we must ensure they are counted by being registered at birth. As frontline workers, we see this “invisible population” every day, therefore we are the ones who can help make the invisible- VISIBLE

[1] Stateless persons are defined under international law as persons who are not considered as nationals by any State under the operation of its law. In other words, they do not possess the nationality of any State.

[2] World Bank Group ID4D, Global dataset, 2015

[3] United Nations Children’s Fund. Every Child’s Birth Right: Inequities and Trends in Birth Registration, UNICEF, New York, 2013

[4] United Nations Children’s Fund. A Passport to Protection: A Guide to Birth Registration Programming, UNICEF, New York, 2013.