Today, an estimated one billion people around the world have no record that they exist. This hidden human rights abuse has ramifications across all aspects of society and is inextricably linked to the fight for gender equality. International efforts to reduce gender disparities and maternal mortality rates must consider the power of a birth certificate.
The Respectful Maternity Care Charter gives a framework for reproductive and maternal health advocates to fight for policy change globally by articulating the universal human rights of mothers and newborns in the context of maternity care provided within a healthcare facility. Based on international and regional human rights instruments, article 9 of the Charter outlines that ‘Every child has the right to an identity and nationality from birth,’ and that newborns cannot be denied birth registration.
And yet, women around the world face gender discriminatory practices and policies when attempting to register the births of their children. In a number of countries, women don’t share the same rights as men to confer their nationality or legally register their child at birth. The name or physical presence of a child’s father might be required to get a birth certificate, which complicates the process for a child if the father refuses to acknowledge paternity or his identity is unknown. A mother may also face gender discrimination or social stigmas when she tries to register her child without legal proof of her own identity or a marriage certificate, or if not accompanied by the father of her child.
When children aren’t registered at birth, they face significant challenges when later attempting to get a birth certificate or legal proof of identity. Take Senfuka Samuel from Uganda, who applied for a master’s degree program that required a birth certificate. He did not have one and discovered that any proof of his birth and all hospital records before the year 2000 were lost during the civil war. For two weeks, he went through a time-consuming and costly process to first prove that he had been born and eventually acquire legal proof of existence.
Not having a birth certificate has devastating consequences for children’s health and human rights. According to UNICEF, about a quarter of children under-five, or 166 million, do not have a birth certificate. In many countries, birth certificates are essential to access life-saving medication and age-related legal protections, enroll in school and acquire a nationality. It is not surprising then that not having a birth certificate exacerbates challenges for children that perpetuate cycles of poverty including poorer health outcomes, less likelihood of attending school, and later the inability to get a job.
This issue also sustains vulnerabilities and violence against women and girls. Legal proof of identity can offer some protection against exploitation and child marriage, but if girls can’t prove their age or don’t have a birth certificate they are near invisible to justice systems and other strategies for preventing this abuse such as accessing education and medical services. Research shows that child brides have higher rates of domestic violence and maternal mortality, with increased health risks to their newborns. In fact, complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls ages 15-19 around the world.
The one-billion-person gap in birth registration also compounds the difficulties of collecting accurate information necessary to understand the scope of global maternal health and women’s rights issues. “Civil registration systems provide key demographic data, including gender statistics,” said Kristen Wenz, global expert on human rights and international development on episode 9 of the Brave Voices, Bold Action podcast. “When they’re fully functional, they actually provide the gender-related data that we need to close the gender gap.”
Civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) systems record key events in a person’s life including birth, death, marriages, and divorces. This documentation of major life events helps women and girls exercise their human rights and identifies gender injustices around the world, such as preventable causes of death disproportionally impacting women and gender gaps in valid proof of identification. Furthermore, this gender-specific population information can inform changemakers and policy leaders where problems for women and girls exist and where to focus available resources.
Therefore, the fight for birth registration and for gender equality go hand in hand. Birth certificates lay the foundation for improving maternal health outcomes and recognizing the human rights of women and girls around the world from the start. International human rights agendas and changemakers must prioritize expanding birth registration accessibility to dismantle gender-discriminatory barriers and eliminate human rights abuses of women and girls.
How can people help today? Kristen points to one simple action that everyone can take. “Increasing awareness is essential. Unless people know about this issue, they can’t care. And if they can’t care, they won’t be compelled to act.”
To learn more about the right every child has to an identity and nationality from birth, check out episode 9 of White Ribbon Alliance’s Brave Voices, Bold Action podcast at https://www.whiteribbonalliance.org/2021/01/20/episode-09/.
Caroline Kinsella is a recent Boston University graduate, with a BA in International Relations and a double minor in Public Health and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Passionate about advancing gender equity, she serves as an Advocacy and Communications Intern with White Ribbon Alliance.