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There are no records of the existence for approximately half of all the children on the African continent.
The births of these children were never registered, meaning the state knows nothing of their existence and are making no provisions for them, says Cornelius Williams, Regional Adviser: Child Protection at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Williams, from UNICEF’s Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office, is one of the delegates at the 2nd Civil Registration and Vital Statics conference currently underway in Durban.
“Could you imagine a child not having an identity, not having an existence written down and so you’re born, you live your life, you die and you never existed in any document…It’s like you were never there. There’s no official record of your existence as a human being,” he said.
Birth registrations were particularly poor in countries like Somalia, South Sudan and Uganda, Williams added.
Children who were not registered were immediately at a disadvantage because with no record of their existence, planning for their future proved to be difficult.
“Increasingly what we are finding out is that when it comes to planning, government plans don’t cover these children, especially if they come from marginalised communities… They don’t plan for you and if you are caught breaking the law, you treated like an adult because you don’t have a birth certificate to show that you’re not an adult.
“This means the law that protects children will not protect you,” he pointed out.
Williams attributed the blame for non-registration to both governments and parents.
“Countries do not have proper systems in place. They are still dealing with outdated, colonial relics – laws that have never been modernised, systems that have not been modernised. You have paper based systems.
“There is still a country that uses the typewriters. They have two typewriters in their national office that is used to type birth certificates because that’s the law and the law is outdated,” Williams said.
The civil registration system of such countries could not be digitalised because there was no money for it.
Another barrier was the cost factor of the documents.
“In one African country, we did a calculation and it cost $25 for someone in a rural area to travel all the way to a town centre to register their child and get a certificate. It costs $25 in a poor country where you have majority of people living on less than $1 a day,” he pointed out.
With regards to parents, he said that some, particularly those in rural areas, did not see the need for their children to have birth certificates as they were not expected to attend school.
Others only showed urgency in registering their children when the child needed to go to school or access services from the state.
“When the child needs something from the state that requires proof of identity then it kicks in. It’s the private use that drives the need for registration.”
However, the situation was looking up, with Africa finally beginning to acknowledge the importance of civil registration.
“Proof of that is the Africa countries gathered here…They have recognised they can’t have a modern state without civil registration… With this conference we are now seeing a movement. There is a movement and growing recognition that Africa must changes,” he added.
Policy makers and political leaders were finally talking about and tackling the issue, Williams noted.
Fifty-four African Ministers responsible for civil registration and vital statistics are involved in this year’s conference, as well as about 500 delegates from African countries including senior civil registration technical experts, development partners, young statisticians and professional associations.
The Ministerial Conference will get underway on 6 and 7 September and will be chaired by Home Affairs Minister and Chairperson of the AU Commission Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.