COTONOU, Benin (August 6, 2012) — Since January 2011, 17-year-old Irene has been an apprentice at a sewing program in Agblangandan, located a half-hour’s drive from Cotonou.
When she gazes up from her sewing machine, she projects an image of pride and determination. But her hard work has been undermined by one unfortunate fact: She has been unable to attend secondary school because she lacks a birth certificate.
She was forced to enroll instead in the sewing class, part of a vocational training program that will enable her to make a living in the absence of that critical document.
When she was a baby, Irene, like almost two in ten children in Benin, was not delivered in a health facility. As a result, her parents did not register her with the government. This single decision has had life-long consequences; Irene has since lacked an official identity.
She was fortunate to be able to attend primary school, and she successfully sat for the final exam—but she was not able to collect her certificate of completion because of her birth registration status.
Irene had also run up against the consequences of being unregistered one month earlier. She had been one of 12 women selected by the minister in charge of family and child welfare to be trained in an income-generating program. But among the documents required to participate was a birth certificate.
“Because of not having a birth certificate, many school children will not sit for final exams. And many out-of-school children will miss the opportunity to have jobs. But we cannot go beyond the rules and we are now figuring out the best way to address this issue,” said Edith Daoundo, a social worker.
In Benin, four out of ten children are not registered at birth and do not receive a birth certificate. As a consequence, they are often denied the right to an education and lack access to other essential services.
Yet many parents do not know to register their children within the first ten days of birth, during which birth registration is free. And many are unaware of the value of obtaining a birth certificate.
UNICEF and its partners, including the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Plan Bénin, are working to support government efforts to register every child at birth.
Since January 2012, UNICEF has been involved in the distribution of more than 140,000 birth certificates that were pulled up in civil status registration centers. These children will finally have access to the services they are entitled to. And a national forum on civil registration is aiming to addressing the bottlenecks that prevent universal access to birth registration in Benin.
Irene is determined to overcome these challenges. “I will never give up,” she said.
"As long as I live, I will strive to get my birth certificate. And none of my children will be confronted with that. I say never.”