Millions of Kids Never Had Their Births Registered—and That’s a Major Problem

Without identification, kids face lifelong problems accessing school enrollment or social services and are more vulnerable to human trafficking.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jun 25, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

Life would be pretty close to impossible without all the forms of ID we’re used to carrying around in the Western world—driver’s license, student card, health insurance card, passport. But what if you had none of those things and no way at all of proving who you are?

That’s the Kafkaesque reality faced by hundreds of millions of people, mostly in the developing world, whose births were never officially registered. In the U.S. and other wealthy countries, virtually every baby’s arrival is recorded by a government agency and documented with a birth certificate. But in much of Africa and southern Asia, that happens for only a fraction of newborns—and being unregistered can become a lifelong problem.

So, Why Should You Care? “If you’re not registered, you pretty much don’t exist,” says Kerry Neal, a child protection specialist with UNICEF. “A birth certificate is the document from which all others spring. Without one, it can be hard to get into schools, get exam certificates, get a passport or even a SIM card for your phone in some countries. You often need to show proof of identity and citizenship to get medical and social services.”

Worse, without a document to prove their age, kids are more likely to be trafficked, conscripted, or forced to work or marry while underage.

Governments also need to know how many people are being born where to plan for services such as schools, hospitals, and roads. “Birth registrations are the best way to track demographics,” Neal says.

All of which explains why, earlier in June, President Obama signed the Girls Count Act, which authorizes the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development to promote birth-registration systems around the world. (That goes for both genders, despite the act’s name.)

The issue has been getting increasing attention since UNICEF published a groundbreaking report in December 2013. The report’s authors estimate that some 230 million children under age five—one out of every three worldwide—never had their birth registered.

Reasons vary. It may be because their parents didn’t know about the process or found it too difficult or expensive to bother with. Often it’s because registration offices are only found in cities, and rural people can’t afford to take time away from work and spend the money required for the trip. (Worldwide, kids in urban areas have higher registration rates than those living in the countryside.) Some members of particular religious or ethnic groups don’t want the state to have a record of their child, out of fear the information will be used to track and persecute them. In some places, the governmental systems for tallying such vital statistics barely exist; in war-ravaged Somalia and Liberia, for instance, the UNICEF report found that fewer than 5 percent of births are registered.

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However, the picture is slowly improving. Between 2000 and 2010, the proportion of kids under five whose births were registered grew from 58 percent to 65 percent, according to the report. Major international institutions including the World Bank and the World Health Organization are putting resources into the cause. India has launched a related campaign to give every one of its 1.2 billion citizens a biometrically verified ID number.

Still, says Neal, “we need significantly more investment and action just to keep up with population growth.”