Invisible children in East Asia and the Pacific

There is an old Latin phrase “Cogito ergo sum” meaning “I think therefore I am” attributed to the philosopher René Descartes in 1637.  But what does it mean to officially exist? Is it enough to merely think as suggested by Descartes or do you need to be recognized by others? If someone asked me to prove I existed- I would reach for my birth certificate for evidence of my existence. When Barack Obama’s eligibility to serve as President was questioned- a copy of his birth certificate was all he needed to prove he was eligible to be President of the United States.

The right to have your birth registered, to a name and to acquire a nationality, all seem quite basic-yet about 230 million children under the age of five do not have their births registered, leaving them essentially invisible. Asia and the Pacific is home to 135 million of them.

When children are denied an official record of existing, they also may be denied access to health care and education, leading to poorer health outcomes and lower educational attainment. If you don’t have any documentation to prove you exist you are at a higher risk for being trafficked and less likely to be found if you go missing. Young people who can’t prove their age also can’t prove they are too young to work or get married – leaving them at higher risk for early marriage or forced child labor.

It is because of that little piece of paper – that official recognition by the government of a person’s existence which has the power to change a course of a person’s life. It is because I had my birth registered I could attend school, get a driver’s license, open a bank account, apply for a loan, and get a passport and eventually that I could get a job with UNICEF.

I joined UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office this year to help support the Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (including birth registration) project in the region. What I didn’t know before joining is that this region was on the verge of a breakthrough for not just birth registration, but all of Civil Registration and Vital statistics. Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) is the continuous, permanent, compulsory and universal recording of the occurrence and characteristics of vital events of the population in accordance with the law.

CRVS is about a person’s right to recognition as a person before the law or their “visibility”. It provides individuals with documentary evidence, for example a birth certificate, to prove their legal identity and family relationships. This also has implications for other ensuing rights and empowering activities such as political participation, recourse to justice, nationality, property ownership, formal employment, using banking and financial services and inheritance.

Convened at the request of governments the Ministerial Conference is co-organized by a partnership between ESCAP, UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA, UNHCR, WHO, Asian Development Bank and Plan International. Governments are expected to make a Ministerial Declaration, including the proclamation of an ‘Asian and Pacific CRVS Decade’ for 2015-2024. The “Get everyone in the Picture” initiative, which was created to support the First Ministerial Conference on Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) in Asia and the Pacific will take place in Bangkok from 24 to 28 November 2014.

The Ministerial Conference comes at a time when momentum around CRVS rapidly growing. CRVS is receiving greater attention because of its strong implications for rights, especially legal identity and improving women’s and children’s health. UNICEF works to ensure that children’s rights are protected. According to Article 7 of the Conventions of the Rights for the Child “The child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have the right from birth to a name…” It is this simple, yet fundamental right that UNICEF has been advocating to ensure for the past several decades. It is an extraordinary privilege to work for UNICEF which ensures that children do not remain invisible.

Smile- you are in the picture!


CRVS is about a person’s right to recognition as a person before the law or their “visibility”
© UNICEF/2006/Pirozzi


The Author
Kristen Wenz is Child Protection Consultant at UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office

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