A name and nationality is every child’s right, enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international treaties. Yet the births of nearly one fourth of children under the age of five worldwide have never been recorded. This lack of formal recognition by the State usually means that a child is unable to obtain a birth certificate. As a result, he or she may be denied health care or education. Later in life, the lack of official identification documents can mean that a child may enter into marriage or the labour market, or be conscripted into the armed forces, before the legal age. In adulthood, birth certificates may be required to obtain social assistance or a job in the formal sector, to buy or prove the right to inherit property, to vote and to obtain a passport. Registering children at birth is the first step in securing their recognition before the law, safeguarding their rights, and ensuring that any violation of these rights does not go unnoticed.
Universal birth registration is also part of a system of vital statistics, which is essential for sound economic and social planning. Birth registration is therefore is not only a fundamental human right, but also a key to ensuring the fulfilment of other rights.
Most countries have mechanisms in place for registering births. However, coverage, the type of information obtained and the use of resulting data can differ, based on a country’s infrastructure, administrative capacity, availability of funds, access to the population and technology for data management. Rates of registration vary substantially among countries, due to these and other factors.
Large differences can be found in the coverage of birth registration among regions. Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS) has the highest level of birth registration, with 98 per cent of children under 5 registered. This is followed by Latin America and the Caribbean, at 92 per cent, and the Middle East and North Africa, at 87 per cent.
The lowest levels of birth registration are found in sub-Saharan Africa (41 per cent). In Eastern and Southern Africa, only 36 per cent of children are registered by their fifth birthday, while the rate in West and Central Africa is slightly higher, at 45 per cent.
Notes: Estimates are based on a subset of 158 countries covering 83 per cent of the global population of children under age five. Regional estimates represent data from countries covering at least half of the regional population. Data coverage was insufficient to calculate the percentage of children under age five whose births are registered in East Asia and the Pacific because comparable data on birth registration are not available for China.
Source: United Nations Children’s Fund, Every Child’s Birth Right: Inequities and trends in birth registration, UNICEF, New York, 2013, p. 15.
A birth certificate is a certified document that can be issued once a child is registered. Overall, one in seven registered children do not possess a birth certificate, but this proportion differs across regions and countries. In Rwanda, where 63 per cent of children under 5 are reportedly registered, only one in 10 have a document that can attest to their registration with civil authorities. Worldwide, around 290 million children (or 45 per cent of all children under the age of 5) do not possess a birth certificate.
Source: United Nations Children’s Fund, Every Child’s Birth Right:Inequities and trends in birth registration, UNICEF, New York, 2013, p. 18.
Regional estimates suggest that birth registration rates among girls and boys are very similar; gender parity in birth registration is also found in almost all countries with available data. However, children of different social and economic backgrounds are associated with very different levels of birth registration.
A significant barrier to birth registration is the distance to the nearest registration facility. Accessibility is influenced by location and terrain, existing infrastructure and the availability of transportation. The greater the distance to the registration centre, the higher the financial and opportunity costs for the family. Globally, children living in urban areas are one and a half times more likely to be registered than their rural counterparts. However, as overall levels of birth registration increase, disparities due to place of residence diminish, as demonstrated in the region with the highest level of birth registration – Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE/CIS).
Notes: Estimates are based on a subset of 147 countries covering 72 per cent of the global population of urban children under age five and 81 per cent of the global population of rural children under age five. Regional estimates represent data from countries covering at least half of the regional population. Data coverage was insufficient to calculate regional estimates by place of residence for East Asia and the Pacific. The estimates presented in this figure cannot be compared with the regional and global estimates presented in previous figures since they are based on a subset of countries with available data. Their sole purpose is to illustrate differentials.
Source: United Nations Children’s Fund, Every Child’s Birth Right: Inequities and trends in birth registration, UNICEF, New York, 2013, p. 26.
In most regions, birth registration rates tend to be highest among the richest 20 per cent of households. In West and Central Africa, for example, 68 per cent of children in the richest quintile are registered, compared to only 27 per cent of children in the poorest quintile. In the Middle East and North Africa, 94 per cent of children in the richest quintile are registered compared to 76 per cent in the poorest quintile. Again, as birth registration levels increase at the national level, disparities in registration according to wealth decrease. This pattern is again observed in CEE/CIS, where levels of registration are high, regardless of household wealth.
Notes: Estimates are based on a subset of 140 countries covering 72 per cent of the global population of children under age five. Regional estimates represent data from countries covering at least half of the regional population. Data coverage was insufficient to calculate regional estimates by household wealth quintiles for East Asia and the Pacific and for Latin America and the Caribbean. The estimates presented in this figure cannot be compared with the regional and global estimates presented in previous figures since they are based on a subset of countries with available data. Their sole purpose is to illustrate differentials.
Source: United Nations Children’s Fund, Every Child’s Birth Right: Inequities and trends in birth registration, UNICEF, New York, 2013, p. 28.
Claudia Cappa and Tessa Wardlaw, Data & Analytics Section and Susan Bissell, Kendra Gregson and Kerry Neal, Child Protection Section, UNICEF.
This publication presents the latest available data on the extent of unregistered children and assesses progress to date in increasing birth registration rates worldwide.
The number of children who have acquired their right to a legal identity is based on official registration figures, censuses, vital statistics and household surveys. Civil registration systems that are functioning effectively compile vital statistics that are used to compare the estimated total number of births in a country with the absolute number of registered births during a given period. However, the systematic recording of births in most countries remains a serious challenge. In the absence of reliable administrative data, household surveys have become a key source of data to monitor levels and trends in birth registration. In most low- and middle-income countries, such surveys represent the sole source of this information.
The two main household survey programmes that collect data on birth registration are the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) and the Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS).
To assess the levels of birth registration, the MICS questionnaire asks all mothers (or primary caregivers) of children under age 5 to respond to questions regarding the possession of a birth certificate or registration with civil authorities and knowledge of how to register a child. Data on birth registration have been collected through MICS since 1999 in almost 130 surveys conducted in about 50 low- and middle-income countries.
The standard household questionnaire used in DHS includes a question on whether all children under age 5 are registered. In previous rounds of DHS, questions on birth registration were asked as part of a section on reproductive health in the individual questionnaire addressed to girls and women of reproductive age. Information on whether births had been registered was recorded for all of a woman’s deliveries in the five years preceding the survey, regardless of whether the child(ren) survived. The first DHS with data on birth registration was conducted in 1993; since that time, data on the issue have been collected in more than 90 DHS around the world.
The standard indicator used in DHS and MICS to report on birth registration refers to the percentage of children under age 5 (0 to 59 months) with a birth certificate or whose birth was reported as registered with civil authorities at the time of survey. Data derived from vital registration systems normally refer to the proportion of live births that were registered within a year or the legal time frame for registration applicable in the country.
INTERPRETING THE DATA
Birth registration prevalence rates are highly sensitive to the way in which questions are formulated. This is especially true of questions regarding the civil authorities in charge of recording births. Respondents may not always be clear on who these authorities are and may misinterpret notifying a church or village chief of a birth as formal registration. Household surveys generally customize questionnaires by naming the specific national authority responsible for registration. But even then, confusion about the birth registration process may result. Similarly, questions regarding the possession of a birth certificate may also be the source of erroneous data, since respondents may confuse a birth certificate with a health card or other document.
The availability of data on birth registration is highly uneven across countries. The latest source of comparable data in some cases dates back to 2000; in other cases, it is as recent as 2012. It is also crucial to remember that data indicate birth registration status at the time of data collection and do not necessarily reflect the current situation.
Several important factors should be considered when examining trends in birth registration:
- Variations in the number of years between consecutive surveys or other data sources. These can range from 1 to more than 20, depending on the country.
- The number of data points available for each country. Patterns of change are more evident when several data sources are available for a country.
- The magnitude of change. Change can be gauged by looking either at the absolute difference (change in percentage points) between estimates or by looking at the percentage change between estimates. Conclusions should be drawn on the basis of both measures.
- Survey design and implementation. This could include, for example, changes in sampling frames, questionnaire content and structure, and language used to refer to civil authorities.
MICS MODULE ON BIRTH REGISTRATION
MICS surveys have a standardized module on birth registration.