Just a Piece of Paper?

April 1, 2015

Birth registration is a fundamental human right.

Susan Littlefield is a UNICEF USA New England Regional Board member

Two years ago, my 12-year-old son and I travelled with UNICEF on a field visit to Belize. One of the most important things we did during our visit was help Belizean parents register their child’s birth. You would not believe how proud the parents were when they completed the registration and their children had full rights as citizens. To us in the U.S., birth registration seems like a very easy thing to do. Most babies are born in the hospital and the paperwork is filled out before you leave.

In other parts of the world, birth registration is not so straightforward. Some babies are born in the countryside far from registration centers. Sometimes, only the mother is present at birth and the father is required for registration. Sometimes the hospital or doctor will not release the paperwork if the family cannot pay. At least 4 out of 10 babies born around the world are not registered.

But a birth certificate is only a piece of paper, right? Why does it matter? Birth registration is a fundamental human right that can help safeguard children from harm and exploitation. In many cases, lack of identification is a major risk factor for girls and women to be trafficked. For girls, the lack of birth registration can be especially dangerous, as girls are already more likely to be denied access to education, to face exploitation and abuse, and to be married early.  

Birth certificates make it easier to detect and prosecute those violating child labor and exploitation laws by proving a child’s age in courts. Birth certificates also help to ensure that children have access to basic services such as education — and, when they're older, voting and land tenure rights. 

This week, I continued to advocate for this fundamental human right. I traveled to Washington, D.C. with six other New England UNICEF volunteers, and we spoke to many of our New England legislators about the “Girls Count Act” which was recently reintroduced in the Senate. Girls Count proposes to make it official U.S. Government policy to encourage other countries to ensure that girls and boys of all ages are full participants in society, including requiring birth certification. It authorizes the Secretary of State and the USAID Administrator to support programs to improve civil registration and vital statistics systems (CRVS), with a focus on birth registration. In addition, the legislation authorizes programs that help prevent discrimination against girls, and ensure the rights of women.


From left: UNICEF USA New England Regional Board members Sharon Malt and Susan Littlefield, Aide to Senator King, UNICEF USA New England Regional Board members Willow Shire and Gitika Marathay Desai.

How can you help?  Please write to your legislators and ask them to support the “Girls Count Act,” just reintroduced in the Senate by Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) as S.802. We, as Americans, must lead the way to ensure that all children have the fundamental human rights they deserve.