Page last updated at 12:11 GMT, Monday, 16 November 2009

Registering the world's 'invisible' millions

Five-year-old Bolivian girl with her identity card (Photo: Plan)
This five-year-old girl from Bolivia is one of some 40 million children helped

A birth certificate is a fact of life for many. Yet there are millions of babies born each year who are never registered, depriving them of vital education and health care and leaving them vulnerable to abuse. Plan International has gone some way to reverse this situation, as the BBC's Penny Spiller explains.

Togolese teenager Awawou had overcome the toughest of childhoods to build an education for herself. After years of hard work, and against all the odds, she was about to sit her school exams when she learned she was not eligible because she did not have a birth certificate.

Her parents had died when she was small and she had not been registered at birth. It took Awawou a year of running errands to earn the $10 (£6) she needed to buy the certificate and sit her exams. Now, aged 18, she hopes to become a dressmaker.

Awawou is one of half a billion children who are estimated to be without a birth certificate. It is thought that at least 51 million of the babies born each year are not registered.

Without registration, it is difficult, if not impossible, to gain access to vital services such as health care, education and welfare support, says child rights organisation Plan International.

It also denies them the possibility of voting or getting legal aid.

Children without any record of identification are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse such as human trafficking and prostitution, being forced into under-age marriages or into becoming child soldiers, the organisation adds.

However, this has now changed for some 40 million people in 32 countries over the past five years, thanks to a Plan International campaign called Universal Birth Registration (UBR).

Experts from around the world - from governments, non-governmental organisations and universities - have gathered in London for a two-day conference to discuss Plan's campaign, and consider ways to continue the work.

A Baka man in Cameroon holds up his civil registration (Photo: Plan)
Cameroon's Baka people have been registered for the first time

"The purpose of the conference is two-fold," said Nadya Kassam, Plan's Head of Global Advocacy.

"We really want people to learn about the actual physical practices involved in birth registration. We want them to find out about what we do and replicate it.

"Also, it's not over. There are still millions of children every year who are not registered. We really want everyone to get together to recommit to universal birth registration. Plan can't do it alone. Those who are attending will have the resources, technology and practices to make it happen."

Under-age marriages

Nathalia Ngende has worked with Plan in Cameroon alongside the Ministry of Social Affairs to help register more than 7,000 people in Cameroon - including, for the first time, 300 of the semi-nomadic Baka people.

There are a number of reasons why people go unregistered, Ms Ngende says, including ignorance, a lack of understanding of the processes or because of the long distances involved in getting to a registration centre.

Changing the law in a country has a really significant effect on the population. It is the only way to bring about sustainable long-term change
Nadya Kassam
Plan's Head of Global Advocacy

Many children in rural parts of Cameroon are still able to get an education, even though they officially should be registered. But like Awawou, their trouble comes when they try to sit exams.

"The public exam can only be sat with a birth certificate, so many children leave school at this point, without any qualifications," Ms Ngende told the BBC.

Children also need a birth certificate to be eligible for the vaccination programme available to under five year olds. Those who are ineligible are left vulnerable to preventable diseases, a common problem in Cameroon.

Plan's report documents some fast and dramatic changes resulting from its campaign.

In Cambodia, about seven million people - 56% of the population - picked up their birth certificates in just 10 months, the report says.

In one area of Indonesia, registration rates rose from just 3% to 72% in two years.

The report also recounts how one woman in the Dominican Republic walked 120km just to register her child.

The campaign has gone some way towards stemming the number of under-age marriages that take place in Bangladesh.

Health centre in Nicaragua (Photo credit: Plan/Jenny Matthews)
Babies are registered in this health centre in Nicaragua

The parents of 13-year-old Jhasoda had, without her consent, arranged for her to be married for a 30,000 taka ($435) dowry. They claimed she was older than she was.

Jhasoda's plight came to the attention of village officials in Khampara region. They were unable to act because she did not have a birth certificate, and quickly began to realise what a big problem it was.

Since then, the chief officials have managed to get Jhasoda and the rest of the village registered. Jhasoda did not have to get married.

Roofs and rafters

Ms Kassam says getting governments to improve their laws - to make registering easier and to ensure the information is properly stored - is a key element in the UBR campaign.

"Changing the law in a country has a really significant effect on the population. It is the only way to bring about sustainable long-term change," she told the BBC.

Birth certificates in Indonesia (Photo: Plan)
Registration rates rose 69% in one part of Indonesia

The reason so many Cambodians were able to acquire birth certificates in such a short time was largely down to the government, which carried out an awareness-raising exercise and made it easy to register, she explains.

And registration does not have to be a difficult process, she adds.

Plan International got around the logistical difficulties presented by an inaccessible area like Pakistan's North-West Frontier by taking the registration process out to the people. More than one million people in that remote region now have birth certificates.

"People understand the importance of it, and will do it, especially when the process is made easier for them," she said.

But while it is one thing to get registered, it is quite another keeping hold of a paper certificate in an area that may be prone to natural disaster and conflict.

Ms Kassam agrees there is work to do in many countries to ensure records remain, even if the physical evidence disappears.

But there are examples of innovative thinking, for instance a project in Tanzania is under way to optically scan certificates for births, deaths and marriages, so that villages will always have a record.

"We have found people are very creative about how their secure their documents," Ms Kassam said. "Even roofs and rafters have been used to keep them safe."

Malawi issues birth certificates
10 Mar 08 |  Africa

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