When 5-year-old Rubi’s mother went to register her for her first day of school, she was refused admission

The reason: Rubi’s birth was never officially registered with the appropriate Bangladeshi government agency, meaning she never received a birth certificate — a document wholly essential for school attendance.

A quickly obtained registration and certificate subsequently allowed Rubi 10 blissful years of schooling until, at age 15, her father informed her she was set to be married. With her birth certificate firmly in hand, Rubi could prove to leaders in her community that she was indeed underage and, therefore, under Bangladesh law, too young to be married.

Rubi returned to school and graduated, aged 18.

The human right that is birth registration is often not given the same standing as the right to trial, privacy, or asylum — despite its equal significance. Below, we explain exactly why birth registration is so vital and why the world’s most marginalized children pay the price when they fail to receive official identification. 

What Is Birth Registration?

The term refers to the process of recording and registering the birth of a child. The registration process provides legal recognition for the individual and establishes a permanent and official record of the child’s parents, birth country, and birthdate. Without birth registration, it is impossible, or illegal, to obtain a birth certificate. 

The right to be recognized as a person before the law and to be registered at birth is addressed in virtually every major human rights charter, notably first seen in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The right is similarly recorded in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of the Child

What’s the Difference Between Birth Registration and a Birth Certificate?

A birth certificate is the proof that registration has taken place, issued by the state to a child’s parent. 

Why Does It Matter and What Happens When Children Aren’t Given an Official Identity?

Birth registrations are vital for a plethora of reasons. Firstly, the registration process is crucial for governments, which use the records to inform policy decisions. Obtaining reliable and concrete information on population statistics, specifically how many children are born each year, allows leaders to make informed decisions on infrastructure, education, and health.

Birth registration is also grossly important to ensuring a child has the official identification needed for key milestones many of us take for granted. For example, without a registration and birth certificate, receiving routine vaccines, registering for school and exams, opening a bank account, receiving social assistance, or signing up to vote become increasingly difficult. 

According to UNICEF, children without birth registrations are condemned to a life in the shadows. 

"This legal proof of identity can help protect children from violence, abuse, and exploitation. Without a birth certificate, children are unable to prove their age, which puts them at a much higher risk of being forced into early marriage or the labor market, or recruited into armed forces,” the organization explains

"It can also help protect migrant and refugee children against family separation, trafficking, and illegal adoption. Without it, these children are at a much higher risk of statelessness, meaning they do not have legal ties to any country, including a nationality.”

Which Countries Have the Lowest Birth Registration Rates?

Globally, an average of 1 in 4 children under the age of 5 — some 237 million — are not registered. 

While rates have risen over the last two decades, the increase hasn’t been proportional, with the most marginalized, poor, and remote communities lagging furthest behind. Today, the Asia-Pacific region is home to nearly 60% of the world’s unregistered youth, with Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and Timor-Leste registering less than 50% of births.

Still, exceptions remain, with the Pacific’s Solomon Islands seeing registrations rise from 80% in 2007 to 88% in 2015.

Tonga, similarly, jumped from 93% in 2012 to 98% in 2018, according to World Bank data.

Other nations with low registration rates include those in Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia, namely India, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Conga, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, Chad, Mozambique, Uganda, and Yemen.

Advocacy organization Refugees International said regardless of the country, children without registration who are born in the border region of two nations or with mixed-nationality parentage are at an increased risk of future statelessness. The same is true for children born in regions with high migration rates. 

What Are the Key Barriers to Progress?

Refugees International further explained that there is no easy solution to ensuring registration for all by 2030.

"A societal lack of awareness, discriminatory and enigmatic nationality laws, stringent legal documentation requirements, and logistical time and monetary constraints are some of the many bureaucratic barriers which impede birth registration practices,” the group wrote.

Social researcher Liz Allen, from the Australian National University, added that education is similarly a significant barrier.

"Equal access to birth registration is also prevented by language, literacy, and cultural barriers of understanding that aren't the fault of individuals, but rather reflect a system that might be difficult to navigate,” she told Global Citizen. “These flaws in the system prevent equal access to registration right from the very beginning.”

Globally, 60% of children born to mothers without education have their births registered, against 80% for children born to mothers who obtain at least a secondary education.

How Can Wealthy Nations Support Countries With More Incomplete Registration Systems?

Allen explained the first step to more equal global registration rates simply comes down to recognition.

“One of the first things [wealthy nations] can start to do is to acknowledge that everyone has a right to a safe living environment and recognition of their humanity,” she said. “I think that offers a good foundation to then make other perhaps slower movements toward overcoming more stubborn issues.” 

The issue, Allen added, then extends to the need for greater cohesion. 

"In-kind support as well as financial aid is vital,” she explains. “Registry offices [in wealthy nations] have the capacity to support, or at the very least share knowledge and expertise, to help get registration schemes [in low-income nations] off the ground. The established system must be accessible and must be established with support of local communities.”

Global Citizen Explains

Demand Equity

Why Achieving Birth Registration for Every Child Is Crucial to Ending Inequality

By Madeleine Keck