AT seven months old, baby Johir is one of Bangladesh’s newest citizens. His mother in Jagannathpur, Sunamganj has registered his birth.
As per national policy every child in Bangladesh needs to be registered within 45 days of birth. To improve birth registration, the 2004 Birth and Death Registration Act provides a legal basis for the use of a birth certificate as proof of age to access services. A recent amendment to the Act creates a permanent structure to oversee the registration of birth and death. Also in Bangladesh, the online Birth Registration Information System means that birth and death certificates are issued through a web-based application and stored on a secure central database.
But further progress needs to be made as Bangladesh is among the 10 countries with the largest numbers of unregistered children (under five years old) in the world, according to a new report by Unicef. Some 10 million children under five in the country do not officially exist.
From the moment a child is born, she or he has rights, including the right to an identity. But birth registration is more than just a right. It is the child’s passport to protection — a way to ensure that no child is excluded from vital services like education, health care and social security.
Unicef’s new report, Every Child’s Birth Right: Inequities and trends in birth registration; shows that globally the births of nearly 230 million children under five have never been registered. That’s about one third of all children under five in the world.
An even larger number might have been registered but have not been issued an official birth certificate, an important step to prove that registration took place.
Although the world has made some progress in increasing birth registration rates, still only 65% of all children globally have been registered. Much of the progress has been seen in just a handful of countries.
The good news is we know what needs to be done to increase birth registration rates, starting with addressing the many reasons why children do not get registered. Sometimes the costs are prohibitive or the birth registration services are located too far away for families to be able to access them. Sometimes families are simply unaware of how to register a birth, or the importance of doing so. In Bangladesh, parents only tend to register their children when they are ready to go to school as a birth certificate is needed for school enrollment.
Many countries are employing straightforward solutions to tackle this issue. In Bangladesh, a strategy was adopted to integrate health services and birth registration during immunisation sessions where children received vaccinations. By linking birth registration with immunisation, children are being simultaneously protected from illness and from abuse and exploitation.
Cultural barriers, or the fear of discrimination or marginalisation, are other factors that deter families from registering births. There are often legitimate concerns about the misuse of personal or sensitive information such as race, religion, or birth out of wedlock to instigate discrimination.
The lack or loss of a formal identity is one of the most significant reasons why a child becomes ‘invisible’ or excluded. Without birth registration, children may not be able to go to school, be treated in hospital or access other social services.
If they are separated from their families during a natural disaster or armed conflict, or if they are exposed to forms of exploitation such as trafficking, reuniting children is more complicated if they were never registered and have no official proof of the links to their families.
Later in life, it is often difficult to apply for a job, get a passport, vote, open a bank account, get a marriage license or even get a mobile phone without a birth certificate.
That is why we call on the relevant authorities in Bangladesh to step up efforts to achieve universal birth registration for all children, especially accelerating registration of children within 45 days of birth as mandated by the 2004 Act. This is a first step in making sure children have the best start in life. If children disappear from view and societies fail to register them, they are often made even more vulnerable, with lasting consequences not only for their own wellbeing but also for the development of their communities and countries.