A lot of dizzying statistics have been doing the rounds following the devastating earthquake in Nepal two months ago. One of the most concerning focuses on the large number of pregnant women affected by the calamity — 126,000, according to the U.N. Population Fund.
In Nepal, we’ve heard stories of women giving birth at home, in fields, in animal sheds, on the road, in tents, all over the place. Brave women have walked for miles by themselves to get to their nearest health facility. The hardships these women have had to overcome just to be able to bring their babies into this world are remarkable.
Those lives are just beginning and it’s important that all births are registered, particularly in emergency situations, so that girls and boys can grow up legally recognized by the state and with the legal identity that will help them throughout their lives.
Who are you?
When you think about it, there are countless times when you might need to prove who and how old you are. Maybe you need to apply for a job, sign a contract, get a loan, open a bank account, request a passport, vote, go to school or sign up to receive aid after a disaster. All of these things require an ID.
July 11 is World Population Day and the theme this year is vulnerable populations in emergencies. Poverty plays its part, and the most affected by disasters are often those who live in poor, rural areas and those from indigenous groups or ethnic minorities. More women than men die as a result of natural disasters, and children and the elderly are particularly at risk. Pregnant and lactating women are also among the most vulnerable.
With babies being born left, right and center in Nepal and with millions of homes damaged or destroyed by the earthquake, registering a birth is understandably not at the top of everyone’s list of priorities. This is why it’s vital that services reach everyone, even if it means giving them directly to communities.
We know that public services are stretched to breaking point in Nepal, even though we are already more than two months into the response. Yet if we don’t act quickly to ensure all girls and boys are registered at birth, we are going to see a large cross-section of society grow up invisible and uncounted. The recent earthquake is potentially the catalyst for this.
Getting everyone in the picture
Great strides have been taken in recent years by the government, with support from partners like Plan International and U.N. agencies, to strengthen the system in place that registers births, as well as other key life events. We’ve helped develop software so the government can digitize the registration system in the 13 districts where we work. But still, about 40 percent of children in Nepal go unregistered, according to government records, and the rates are particularly high when you go out into the rural districts.
Unregistered children are at greater risk of being trafficked because there’s no record of who they are. It’s more difficult to reunite unregistered children with their parents because they don’t have a legal identity. Girls are more likely to be forced to marry before the legal age if they don’t have a birth certificate to show how old they are. Children might not be able to go to school or take exams and they could find themselves working in exploitative conditions.
Birth registration is the first right of every child. It’s enshrined in conventions and international laws. Yet around the world, 230 million children under 5 have not been registered, while more than 100 developing countries don’t have adequate systems in place to register key life events like births.
If governments don’t have the most accurate, up-to-date data on the people in a country, how can they then effectively respond to those people’s needs at the best of times, let alone after there has been a major emergency.
Birth registration isn’t the most attention-grabbing area of humanitarian work. Headlines tend to focus on health care, deaths, trafficking and livelihoods. Yet what a lot of people don’t realize is that all of these are directly supported by a country having a robust, efficient system in place to register key life events.
This is why we implore our partners in Nepal and other developing countries to include birth registration in their work before, during and after emergencies. It will make everyone’s job easier and significantly reduce the risk to vulnerable populations while simultaneously giving governments the data they need to be able to effectively coordinate a response.
There is significant global momentum and political will for counting every child and ensuring all births are registered, particularly within the health sector, as was evident at the recent Measurement and Accountability for Results in Health Summit in Washington, D.C.
No generation of children should grow up invisible. This World Population Day, let’s not forget to include those who so often find themselves on the fringes of society.
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Nicoleta Panta is the advocacy manager for Plan International’s Count Every Child initiative, through which the organization has helped register more than 40 million people in 32 countries. Plan’s advocacy has also led to improved laws in 10 countries. Nicoleta joined Plan International three years ago to develop a new direction for Plan’s global work towards universal birth registration as part of civil registration and vital statistics. She believes sustainable changes for the most vulnerable can be achieved by working hand in hand with governments, U.N. agencies, NGOs and the private sector.
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