COTONOU, Benin (January 28, 2012) — A legal identity is a critical right, one many children in Benin are denied.
During a visit to her home country, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Angélique Kidjo, an internationally renowned singer, advocated for improvements in the birth registration system in order to guarantee this right for all children.
Birth registration is a gateway for many opportunities. Without it, children are excluded from basic services, and they are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Four out of every 10 children in Benin do not have any legal existence because they were not officially registered; these children cannot receive national identity cards, vote, open bank accounts, obtain official travel documents or sit for exams.
“Each child deserves a birth certificate that will pave the way for his education, for a brighter future, and protect him against child trafficking,” said Ms. Kidjo.
During her trip, Ms. Kidjo visited Ekpe, a town in the Commune of Sèmè Kpodji, where she toured a health center and civil registration center to see the circumstances impeding the proper registration of every child. Poverty and geographic remoteness are key factors.
Speaking to a number of women in the health center, Ms. Kidjo learned that nearly 80% of women in Benin give birth in health facilities, but many cannot pay the associated fees. As a result, they do not receive a birth declaration—the first step towards receiving a child’s birth certificate.
In addition, the names of children are often missing from birth declarations because traditional practices hold that children are named eight days after birth. But the legal period for receiving a free birth certificate is 10 days after birth, and many families have difficulty returning to the health centre to amend the declaration in that short period.
Registration centers are also difficult to access from rural villages, where families often struggle to pay for transportation. And after the free 10-day period, birth certificate fees can amount to US$37 dollars, a hefty sum for poor families.
As a result, hundreds of unprocessed or uncollected birth registration documents are piled up in the civil registration centre. During her tour of the center, Ms. Kidgo saw stacks of birth declaration forms ranging from 2003 to 2012.
Overcoming these barriers will require concerted efforts to reach all disadvantaged, excluded children, including those living in poverty and in hard-to-reach areas. During her visit, Ms. Kidjo called on the interior and justice ministers to do just this.
UNICEF is also committed to helping increase birth registration, part of broader efforts to guarantee the rights of all children, regardless of income, geographical location or other status.
“Many bottlenecks still affect the birth registration process,” said Anne Vincent, UNICEF Representative in Benin. “We should therefore work hand-in-hand with the Government to improve the birth registration system. And UNICEF will support a national campaign to make sure that each family is aware of the importance of the birth certificate.”
Members of the Parliament have made this item a priority on their agenda, and the government is working to enable health workers to start the registration process as soon as the children are born—promising signs.
But the work will not be over until all children—particularly the hardest-to-reach—are legally recognized by their government and society.
“When a child does not have a birth certificate, his future is jeopardized. He is like a ghost,” said Ms. Kidjo. “Our responsibility as parents, caregivers and states is to make sure that each child has a right to legal identity.”