The Universal Human Right to an Identity from Birth Explained


By Caroline Kinsella, Advocacy and Communications Intern, White Ribbon Alliance 

One of the more hidden human rights abuses around the world is the fact that one billion people have no legal proof of identity. Alarmingly, UNICEF estimates that about one in four children  under age 5, or 166 million, are unregistered and without any trace that they exist.  Conversations about reducing global poverty and protecting the health and human rights of  mothers and newborns must include the challenges of birth registration.

A single piece of paper has the power to transform a person’s future. Birth certificates are  necessary to access government services, life-saving medical treatment, a nationality and age related legal protections. Legal proof of birth is often required to attend school and apply  to higher education, as well as open a bank account and vote. Many of the individuals without a  birth certificate today are children who were never registered at birth. In some cases, nobody  knows for decades that a child does not have a birth certificate. 

In Uganda, Senfuka Samuel, who goes by Sam, applied for a master’s degree program that  required a birth certificate. As he did not have one, Sam had to venture to the hospital where he  was born. There, he discovered that hospital records before the year 2000, including any  proof of his birth, were destroyed in the civil war. Traveling hundreds of miles over two  weeks, Sam spent his own money to first get issued a necessary ‘birth notification’ – a slip of  paper with birth details handwritten by a midwife – to later gain a new legal birth certificate. 

Stories like Sam’s are not unusual. When children go unregistered and uncounted, it is not  surprising that the costly and time-consuming process of acquiring a birth certificate makes it  extremely challenging to break the cycle of poverty. Research suggests that without proof of  identity, and therefore eligibility for social assistance and legal protections, children have poorer  health outcomes, less likelihood of enrolling and completing school, and higher risk of  exploitation and child marriage. 

Legal proof of identity is not a privilege, nor is it earned. The Respectful Maternity Care  Charter articulates the universal human rights of mothers and newborns in the context of  maternity care provided within a healthcare facility and is used to fight for policy change around  the world. Supported by widely accepted 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 even if they die shortly following  birth. 

If all these laws exist, why then are one billion people still living without legal proof of  identity? “Gender discrimination remains a hidden problem, because statistically, there is no  difference between registration rates of boys and girls,” says Kristen Wenz, leading expert on  civil registration and legal identity, in her recent TED Talk. “But the discrimination isn’t against  the child — it’s against the mother.”

In many countries, national laws and regulations prevent women from holding equal rights with  men to confer nationality or register the birth of their child. Sometimes the name or physical  presence of the newborn’s father is required, which is extremely problematic if his identity is  unknown or if he refuses to acknowledge paternity. Mothers also face gender discrimination when attempting to register or obtain the birth certificate of their newborn if they do so alone  or have no proof of their own identity or marital status. 

Knowing that these worldwide gaps in birth registration exist and are deeply entrenched in  gender inequality is an important step in safeguarding the globally recognized rights of women  and newborns. International human rights agendas and initiatives must consider expanding birth  registration accessibility to eliminate gender discriminatory systems and unnecessary  hurdles related to geography, language and money. To learn more about this important issue  and hear from Sam and Kristen directly, check out episode 9 of the Brave Voices, Bold Action  podcast by White Ribbon Alliance. 

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.

Photo Credit: White Ribbon Alliance Tanzania

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