6 September 2012

Africa: Ministers to Agree On Steps to Strengthen Civil Registration Throughout the Continent

Durban — Giving Children an Identity - Right from the Beginning

Recognizing the crucial role of effective civil registration for social and economic development, Ministers from 46 African countries have gathered in Durban, South Africa, to discuss how to strengthen their national civil registration and vital statistics systems. The two-day ministerial conference, organized by the African Union Commission, the African Development Bank, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and other UN organizations, including UNICEF, as well as other partners will deliberate on innovation, integration in health services and partnerships.

"Children without a birth certificate have no legal status. Birth registration is essential for children to access health care and education, as well as for orphans to inherit from their parents. Birth registration protects children from child labour, recruitment into armed forces and militias, human trafficking, early marriage as well as other forms of exploitation," said Elke Wisch, UNICEF Deputy Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, during the opening of the Second Conference of African Ministers responsible for Civil Registration. "Moreover, civil registration is critical to good governance. Governments can only plan and invest properly in social services if they have accurate disaggregated population data, including information about the most difficult to reach populations."

Civil registration covers the registration of birth, death, marriage and divorce. Efforts to strengthen civil registration systems received a boost in 2010, when, for the first time, over forty African Ministers in charge of Civil Registration met in Addis Ababa to agree on a roadmap towards reforming national civil registration systems. The Durban Conference provides an opportunity for countries to take stock of progress made over the past two years. It also reinforces commitments for future investments in civil registration and vital statistics systems in Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest birth registration rates in the world. On average, only 38 per cent of children below the age of 5 have a birth certificate. However, there are some countries who have achieved high rates of birth registration: South Africa has one of the most sophisticated systems of birth and death registration in the world; Egypt has demonstrated that birth registration rates of 99 per cent are achievable in the African context. Countries such as Djibouti, Burundi, Togo and Gabon all register well over 80 per cent of new births.

There are however enormous disparities between and within countries. For example, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration in Namibia, birth registration rates range from 40 per cent in remote rural areas to 90 per cent among the better serviced urban areas. In some African countries, birth registration rates have stagnated or declined in recent years due to lack of sustained political commitment and related factors, such as outdated laws and policies, limited institutional capacities, direct and indirect costs of registration, cultural barriers and lack of awareness among families about the importance of registering their children.

The Conference calls on countries to integrate birth registration in health services and health information systems, taking advantage of the much greater coverage of health services compared to the generally limited reach of current civil registration systems. In Namibia, for example, 95 per cent of pregnant women attend ante-natal care services. Within two years of introducing birth registration facilities in 23 hospitals, the number of infants registered at birth increased by fifty per cent. The progress was made possible through a strategic partnership between the Ministries of Health and Social Services, and the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration. As a direct result of increased registration of births, the number of children accessing the Child Welfare Grant increased by almost 50 per cent between 2008 and 2011.

"Throughout the continent, millions of people are using the internet on a daily basis and there are few places in Africa that do not have mobile phones network coverage," said Elke Wisch. "But when we look at the civil registration systems, we find that some countries have not yet caught up. We have to take advantage of these new technologies to make our civil registration systems more effective".

In Nigeria, Africa's largest country with a population of 160 million, just 30 per cent of children are registered at birth. Innovative partnerships with the health sector and the use of mobile technologies are opportunities to achieve greater coverage and to register millions of newborns who currently go unregistered.

In Uganda, where 43 per cent of children are not born in health facilities, the government has introduced an internet-based registration system using mobile phone technology with support from UNICEF and Uganda Telecom. This mobile system at community level, together with a new registration system in health facilities, aims to significantly increase the rate of birth registration. In Mulago, one of the largest hospitals in Africa, a computerized birth registration system was introduced.

This conference has brought to light many innovative and pioneering developments to strengthen and improve civil registration and vital statistics systems. It is a testament to the political commitment of African governments, which are demonstrating their determination to ensure all children count, right from the start.

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