I am Irish.
At birth, I was officially registered and therefore have a birth certificate which identifies me as an Irish citizen. That piece of paper has entitled me to a number of rights – enrolment in school, access to health and social services, and protection by the State.
I joined UNICEF this year, a few months before the launch of a post-Ebola birth registration drive. It was only during the preparations for this registration drive that I actually thought through this process. I asked my own mother how births are registered in Ireland. ‘I don’t really remember. The process is essentially automatic,’ she told me.
Unfortunately, it is not always as simple as that. More than 70,000 Liberian children, whose births were not registered during the Ebola outbreak do not officially exist. Many children in Liberia, and around the world, are deprived of accessing basic essential services because there is no record of them on paper. Globally, nearly 230 million children under the age of five have never been officially recorded.
I never considered birth registration as a right before, probably because I never had to think twice about it. But every child, no matter where they are born, has the right to be registered at birth, the right to an education and the right to an identity, as promised in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Human rights should not be privileges, but must be made mandatory and accessible for every child.
Birth registrations in Liberia steadily increased after nationwide systems were re-built and re-established in 2011: 48,408 registered in 2011; 57,085 in 2012; 80,284 in 2013 and 53,031 in 2014.
The Ebola outbreak reversed much of this gain.
During the Ebola crisis, parents were too frightened to register their children at health facilities for fear of them contracting the virus. Instead, all their efforts were put into keeping their families safe from Ebola.
Additionally, due to eventual closure and suspension of services during the emergency, parents had no means to register their children, even if they wanted to do so. It also meant that when children were registered in remote counties, the records could not be sent to be included in the central registry.
I found myself asking, what does this mean for the thousands of unregistered children across the country?
Because they do not administratively exist, these children are more vulnerable to exclusion, unable to obtain identity documents or access basic health and social services. They are also in greater danger of being trafficked or illegally adopted. Without a birth certificate, children cannot be recognized as citizens, or avail themselves of state protection.
The system is now under additional strain, trying to clear backlogs as well as restart the registration process. In May this year, only 705 children were registered, according to figures available at Liberia’s Ministry of Health. Now, as of December, with the catch-up registration process that UNICEF supported, that number has increased to 17,705 registrations.
Progress has been made, but there is still a lot more to do.
Right now in Liberia there is a birth registration campaign taking place in two counties, Grand Bassa and River Cess. These counties were chosen due to an overall lack of awareness and low number in birth registration. The campaign, which started on 11 November and continues until 12 December is targeting children aged 12 years and under. Birth registration is free for children 0-12 years.
At UNICEF, we are working with the Ministry of Health to ensure that the country has all the necessary systems in place; from trained staff with the required material, such as birth certificates, stamps, computers and software; with transport allowances that enable teams of registration experts to travel around the country and register children; and spreading awareness that campaigns are carried out.
Birth registration must be rolled out across the country and plans are underway to try and launch this in the coming months. However, all of this requires more funding, and we are hoping to secure additional funds to help Liberia implement a nationwide registration campaign to register all children.
I was never denied my identity as an Irish citizen and it saddens me to think that others are deprived of this right because they are not registered at birth. I am hopeful that every child, no matter where in the world they are born, will have access to birth registration and claim their rightful identity.
Alvina Lim is a Communications Officer with UNICEF Liberia. She has been working on the Ebola response effort since March 2015.