A simple little paper that changes lives

For every child, an identity and a future

My name is Miranda Armstrong and I’ve been the Chief of Child Protection for UNICEF, Cote d’Ivoire for the last three years. As a specialist on violence against children and child labour, non-registered children issues — including the fact that many children aren’t registered at all — were new challenges for me and clearly big ones for the country.

In Côte d’Ivoire, one in four children under five years old is not registered at birth and so does not have a legal identity. These children will not be able to progress in school, cannot prove their age, prove who their parents are or where they were born. As they become adults, they will not be able to get a mobile phone, open a bank account, get married or vote.

What would be the future of those children who have to leave school because of a simple little paper?

We decided that something had to be done. First of all, we needed to ensure that all newborn babies are registered at birth to prevent hundreds of thousands of children joining the list of unregistered births within the legally allowed first three months.

UNICEF decided to partner with the Ministry of Health to ensure that all newborn babies can be registered by midwives immediately at birth or when they come to the health center for a vaccination. The midwives collect the information from the mothers and the civil registration officers collect the information on a weekly basis. In Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire, this new mechanism for birth registration is working in every public health center and maternity ward.

Three smiling children leaning over a swaddled baby.
©UNICEF/Côte d’Ivoire/MilequêmBaby Arnaud and his cousins who came to visit just a few hours after birth.

One story that really touched me was of baby Arnaud. Baby Arnaud was born in Adjawi, a poor peri-urban area in Abidjan. Arnaud is the third child in the family and was born to Carole (30) and Patrick (29).

Just three hours after birth, Arnaud had his medical certificate of birth filled in by the midwife, Nadège. Nadège saw the mother Carole at least 4 times for consultations during the pregnancy and each time she told her to bring her identity papers — or basic information on her name and the father’s name –so that the medical certificate could be completed immediately. “Many parents don’t have identity papers themselves,” she explained, “but we tell mothers that we can register the birth of their child even if they don’t have papers and even if the Monsieur (their husband) does not come forward.” The most important thing is to capture the birth and make sure the baby is registered.

Carole and Patrick said they now understand the importance of registering their children to guarantee their future.

For baby Arnaud the process was free, but for their other children, who are now over three months old, it will be much longer and costlier. In fact, you have to go to court in Cote d’Ivoire and prove your identity – and this can cost over US$60, which is a lot for poor families to afford.

In order to get rid of the backlog of unregistered children, like Arnaud’s siblings, we needed to come up with another bold program. We needed to ensure that the nearly 1 million over-three months old, undeclared children get an identity.

Two ladies holding a baby and pouring over documents.
© UNICEF/Côte d’Ivoire/DiarassoubaNadège Yaou, midwife at the Adjahui maternity ward, Abidjan, explaining to Carole the importance of registering baby Arnaud at birth.

Special operation: providing birth certificates to over 630,000 primary school children

In an innovative and truly special operation, UNICEF and the Ministries of Justice, Education and Interior enabled over 630,000 children to obtain a birth certificate, a jugement supplétif, at a fraction of the normal price: US$2.5  instead of US$40–60. In the French system, this document is provided to children and adults who register outside the legally allowed delay of 3 months.

During the operation, we collected information from over 14,000 primary school directors, who have basic information on children provided at enrolment. The information was checked by a private company and then transferred to the local civil registration service where the child was born. Registers were searched to double-check that the child was not yet registered. Then the file was sent  to the justice office  that issued the jugement supplétif that confers the child’s legal identity. A birth certificate follows and that ensures registration. A new law has now been passed to enable other children and adults to obtain a legal identity.

When I was in northern Cote d’Ivoire recently, I met a 10-year-old girl called Sekongo Youhouo Awa. Her life would have been very different without the special operation. Awa, like many girls, was enrolled in primary school without a birth certificate. Education is obligatory in Côte d’Ivoire, so school directors must accept children even without a birth certificate.

A group photo of children holding up certificates
© UNICEF/Côte d’Ivoire/DejonghOfficial birth certificate delivery ceremony with the First Lady of Côte d’Ivoire.

Awa was doing really well in school, but she could not pass her final primary exams and would have to drop out. Just before the exams were going to be held, the school director received the forms to register all the children in his school that did not have a birth certificate. A special effort was made to act quickly for the children who were sitting the exam, and Awa’s new birth certificate came just in time.

Thanks to this precious document, she was able to pass the exam with flying colors and get a scholarship for the school year 2019-2020.

AWA’s former primary school director testified: “We can only say a big thank you to UNICEF. This project has been very beneficial for many children in our region. We live in an area where parents are not willing to provide formal education to their children, especially girls. What would be the future of those children who have to leave school because of a simple little paper?”


Miranda Armstrong is Chief of Child Protection, UNICEF Côte d’Ivoire.

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