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Improving birth registration for an inclusive Africa

Africa CRVS Day

“Most people in Africa and Asia are born and die without leaving a trace in any legal record or official statistic,” stated an article in a 2007 edition of The Lancet. The author referred to this fact as a “scandal of invisibility.”

Significant progress has been made since then. In 2015, world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes a goal to provide legal identity for all. It also recognizes the importance of civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) systems for monitoring the progress of 12 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

African countries have committed to registering every child’s birth under the African Agenda 2063. In 2013, the Africa Programme on Accelerated Improvement of Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (APAI-CRVS) was created to guide and accelerate improvements to CRVS systems across the continent.

Yet change is still not happening fast enough. In sub-Saharan Africa, 95 million children under the age of 5 have never had their births recorded and 120 million don’t have a birth certificate. If current trends continue, close to 115 million children will be unregistered by 2030. This means they won’t legally exist.

Video: What if you didn't have a birth certificate?

Women and children face a vicious cycle of exclusion

Girls are less likely to have their births registered than boys in several African countries, including Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau, Namibia, Niger, and Sudan. Without a birth certificate, these girls struggle to exercise their rights, access public services, and gain social protection. Their exclusion creates inequalities that persist throughout their lifespan and pass to their children. It also leads to data gaps that prevent governments from planning effective policies.

Women and children face many of the same barriers as men – including poverty, distance from registration services, limited education, ethnicity, and disability. But for women and children, these barriers interact with and reinforce patriarchal social norms, such as a lack of autonomy, power imbalances, and harmful practices.

For example, registration offices are often hard to access for people living in rural areas. But they’re particularly inaccessible to women who may have restricted financial independence and freedom of movement due to local customs and household responsibilities.

There are many welcome efforts to improve access to civil registration services for vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. Yet few specifically highlight the gender dimensions of inequality in civil registration.

Strategies for making civil registration inclusive

There are several opportunities to rebalance gender inequalities in CRVS systems and increase civil registration among women, children, and other vulnerable populations. These include:

Making birth registration free

Around 370 million children (roughly 3 in 4) live in sub-Saharan African countries where you must pay a fee for birth registration. Removing this fee would lower barriers for people living in poverty or who have limited financial autonomy.

Closing the distance to registration offices

One way to do this is by linking birth registration to the provision of healthcare, particularly antenatal and maternity services. This shifts the burden from women to health administrators, who are more able to interact with civil registration offices.

Removing legal and regulatory barriers

Some countries require unmarried women to disclose the identity of their child’s father. The stigma associated with childbirth out of wedlock often discourages women from registering their child’s birth. The UN therefore recommends that information on a mother’s marital status should not be included in a legal document unless there are compelling reasons to do so.

Breaking down social and cultural barriers

Some barriers to civil registration are built into a society’s social fabric. We may be able to reshape these obstacles over time by studying them in specific contexts and working closely with local communities.

Involving women as CRVS advocates

Women are uniquely positioned to facilitate and advocate for CRVS. They represent 67% of the world’s formal health workforce and are often the primary caregivers at home, meaning they have important knowledge about vital events in their families and communities. There is potential to strengthen CRVS systems by developing the roles of women in healthcare – for example, in Rwanda health workers notify the civil registrar of deaths and conduct verbal autopsies.

Improving our understanding of gender and CRVS

Decision-makers need more evidence about gender inequities in civil registration if they’re to build inclusive, universal CRVS systems. The Centre of Excellence for Civil Registration and Vital Statistics Systems is helping to close this gap by publishing a Knowledge Brief Series on Gender and CRVS.

Want to learn more about the topics covered in this article? Download the fourth paper in our second knowledge brief: Empowering Women and Girls through Civil Registration Systems.