In Pakistan, 3 out of 4 newborns last year were not registered with the government. It’s worse in Yemen, where 4 out of 5 were not registered. And in Somalia, 97% of babies born last year don’t officially exist.
The problem is extensive and destructive, according to a report released on Tuesday by the U.N. Children’s Fund. Some 230 million children under the age of 5 — 1 in 3 children around the world — were not registered at birth and are, as a result, cut adrift from the government programs, like education and health care, intended to support them.
“All children are born with enormous potential,” UNICEF deputy executive director Geeta Rao Gupta said in a statement. “But if societies fail to count them, and don’t even recognize that they are there, they are more vulnerable to neglect and abuse. Inevitably, their potential will be severely diminished.”
The report, Every Child’s Birth Right: Inequities and Trends in Birth Registration, compares statistical analysis with available data on registrations and finds that, in 2012, only 60% of newborns were registered. Tens of millions of other children who were registered at birth over the past five years don’t have a birth certificate to show for it.
Children in certain ethnic or religious groups and in impoverished or remote areas are least likely to be registered, the report finds, impeded by high costs, unawareness of the process and fear of further discrimination. Rates of registration are lowest in impoverished countries of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
“Birth registration is incredibly important as the gateway to all other essential services that children and people need in general,” says Erica Kochi, who co-heads UNICEF’s Innovation Unit that is working to develop low-cost technology to identify and report unregistered births. “It’s the first stop to health services, it’s the first stop to education, and as you move forward it’s the first stop to have citizenship and the right to vote.”
Already, UNICEF is working with the Ugandan government to create a mobile system that lets newborns be registered in a matter of minutes and, in the eyes of authorities, brings the children into existence. In Kosovo, where the roughly 5% of unregistered newborns come from some of the country’s most marginalized communities, Kochi’s Innovation Unit developed a way to use mobile phones to allow social workers to report unregistered births.
In Nigeria, similar technology allowed the government to register an additional 8 million previously unregistered children over a 15-month period.
“Universal birth registration is the ideal that we are working towards,” Kochi says. “I think it can be done very, very quickly. The most important thing is not the how, but it’s the will to do it.”