10th – 11th December 2012 – ESCAP, Bangkok, Thailand, I was lucky enough to attend a massive regional meeting this week, my first week on the job with UNICEF’s East Asia and Pacific Regional office in Bangkok, Thailand. Monday 10 December was International Human Rights Day, and I joined 232 senior representatives from 48 countries and 22 UN and NGO partners to discuss the importance of making every life count in Asia and the Pacific.
Convened by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), co-organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and in collaboration with 18 additional UN, civil society and government partners, the two day high level meeting focused on the critical importance of maintaining proper civil registration and vital statistics systems and how these seemingly mundane systems are at the front line of protecting children’s rights to health, education and protection.
It was surprising that 1/3 to 2/3 of all children in the Asia-Pacific Region are currently not registered. They have no official identity, are more likely to be stateless, and are vulnerable to human rights abuses under the laws of their countries. They can’t prove who they are, who their parents are or where and when they were born, leaving them invisible and vulnerable to exploitation.
|A mom and her child outside a birth registration office in Thailand
© UNICEF 2012/Athit Perawongmetha
There are vast regional disparities in the quality and quantity of vital statistics such as numbers of births, deaths, still births, adoptions, marriages and divorces that are registered. Effective and accurate CRVS helps facilitate access to health, education, social welfare and protection. It can allow a person to vote and participate in political and economic activities. On a broader level, accurate and reliable CRVS allows for evidence based policy, planning and sustainable development. Without knowing accurate information, how can a country meet the needs of its population?
For a child, a birth certificate can help protect against child marriage, child labour, conscription and trafficking for sexual purposes. It provides a child with a basis for acquiring a nationality and records parental information, which means that in an event of separation like a disaster or national emergency a child can reach their family. It can prevent abductions and illicit adoptions and entitles a child to access the juvenile justice system. I had never thought how birth registration was such a crucial preventative measure and provides a legal proof of identity, a fundamental right. In some countries even going to school depends on whether or not a child has a birth certificate.
Some of the governments that came to the meeting gave great examples of how their CRVS systems are working well and how they have overcome obstacles to vastly improve their data collection. Tools and resources were shared from the Health Information Systems hub (University of Queensland) and the Health Metrics Network (WHO). One thing was clear: all present were enthusiastic in working to dramatically improve the situation in the region through a coordinated approach. A draft Regional Strategic Plan to achieve this was discussed and strongly supported by all participants, with clear goals and an implementation strategy.
|Plan International’s presentation on mobile registration at the Innovative Approaches side event.
© UNICEF EAPRO 2012/Anna Richardson
It was a pleasure to also attend the side event co-organised by UNICEF and Plan International on birth registration. Plan and UNICEF have long collaborated on the issue of birth registration in the region. The presentation, entitled Innovative approaches to Civil Registration: Identity at birth and beyond, showed how technologies are being used to help countries increase CRVS. For example in Thailand a hospital based online system links hospital births to the national civil registration system. Plan International demonstrated how they have been working with local governments and stakeholders to implement “mobile identity” which uses mobile phone technology to register a child at birth in a range of countries.
|Speakers at the Innovative Approaches side event
© Plan International/Nopporn Wonganan
By the second day, it was clear that the need to make every life count was undeniable. All parties agreed to the aim that by 2020 all countries in Asia and the Pacific will have well-functioning CRVS systems. This vision gained high level national and regional commitment and with the support of governments, UN agencies, civil society, academia and NGOs, it’s possible. Innovation in technology offers huge potential to accelerate the process and through collaboration across sectors and countries the goals and outcomes of the draft Regional Strategic Plan are possible.
The meeting could not have been more engaging. All present were open to new ideas and possibilities, recognising the problems created by inaccurate data and CRVS systems and wanting to contribute to a solution. This high level meeting brought together thinking, ideas, and encouraged discourse between countries in the region on a matter of high importance. The push to achieve better CRVS systems across the world could be felt – a world where every life counts.