By Summer Wood,
New York University
Having a birth certificate is a basic human right, established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (art. 15), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (art. 24), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (art. 7). A birth certificate is regarded as the ‘first human right’ and can provide a gateway to the realization of many other civil, political, economic, and social rights for children, including access to health and education services, and protection from human rights violations such as child labor, child marriage, trafficking, and criminal prosecution as an adult.
A birth certificate provides proof of a child’s name, age, nationality, and parentage, and is required to obtain many other documents the child will need later in life, such as an identity card, marriage license, driver’s license, passport, or voting card. Birth certificates may also be required for many economic activities, such as opening a bank account, working legally, or registering a business. In many countries, lack of a birth certificate is a barrier to many opportunities in life. Birth registration also provides an important source of vital statistical data to governments, enabling them to better plan for health and education services for their populations. The lack of progress on improving birth registration systems in the developing world has been called ‘the single most critical failure of development over the past 30 years.’
Each year more than 50 million births go unregistered worldwide, with rates of unregistered children under 5 as high as 55 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and 63 percent in South Asia. If birth registration is so beneficial, both for children and countries, why is it so difficult to do? My research examines the barriers to birth registration in Tanzania, where only 16 percent of children under 5 are registered, and only 8 percent of whom actually have a birth certificate. As in many developing countries, rates of birth registration in Tanzania vary considerably by geographic location and household income. Rates of registration in Tanzania range from highs of 79 percent in densely populated Zanzibar and 59 percent in urban Dar es Salaam, to a low of 4 percent in the rural Manyara region of northern Tanzania.
In 2012, I interviewed parents and guardians from 154 low and middle income households in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city, to discover why rates of birth registration are so low, and what can be done to improve the situation. Although the first birth registration laws in Tanzania were passed in 1917 and 1920 during the German and British colonial eras, birth registration was not widely required for all Tanzanians until the 1990s. Today, the system for birth registration is somewhat complex and fragmented, requiring parents to make multiple trips to local government offices where they must queue in long lines, pay fees and fines that far exceed the average household income, and face bureaucratic systems that are intimidating and confusing to many people.
Parents and guardians told many stories about their struggles to obtain birth certificates for their children, a process that sometimes took years. They identified four main barriers to birth registration: time, distance, cost, and lack of information. Even though Dar es Salaam has several offices where births can be registered, many families reported that it was very difficult to find the time to take an entire day off to go to the government office. They spoke of endless ‘follow-up’ visits. Said one father, Daniel: ‘It is very difficult to register. Now when you go to the office they always say ‘go away and come back later.’ It really takes a long time.’ For many low-income families who depend on subsistence work to feed their families from one day to the next, a day off from work to go to the government office means there may not be enough money left for food that night. Costs—both formal and informal—were another key barrier. Late fees are charged to register any child over 3 months old, and go as high as $13 USD for children over ten. Upendo had to pay almost $40 USD to register her three children. She said ‘I had to work a very long time to save that much money. And then I had to keep going back and following up, I almost lost hope.’ Although most participants were reluctant to speak openly about bribery and corruption, about one third of families reported paying ‘extra fees’ or ‘special fees’ in order to obtain birth certificates.
Despite the many difficulties they reported, parents in the study managed to register about half of their children, at least partially, and had hopes to get birth certificates for unregistered children in the future. Parents saw birth registration as a basic right, but they spoke about it largely as a citizenship right, rather than a human right. They hoped that having a birth certificate would improve their children’s future educational and economic prospects, and perhaps open doors into mainstream society that were closed to them as unregistered people.
However, many parents drew attention to the frustrations and disappointments they faced in trying to access this right for their children. ‘It’s a right for every child, but only if they get it,’ said Sophia. ‘It is necessary for everyone. It’s a right, but it’s not free. If it’s a right, it should be free,’ added Jackson.
In the past several years, the Tanzanian government has announced plans to improve birth registration services. In July 2013, the government began a pilot project to test a new national system for birth registration of children under 5. Tanzania’s Registration, Insolvency and Trusteeship Agency is partnering with UNICEF, the Canadian government, Tanzanian mobile phone company TIGO, and development organization VSO, to offer birth certificates through a mobile application system which will be available at local health clinics and government offices in the Mbeya region in southern Tanzania. The government plans to expand the pilot to four more regions over the next two years. For parents in my study, these policy changes are obvious, and long overdue. When asked how the government should improve birth registration, they offered many of the same suggestions as policy experts: educate communities, offer mobile same-day registration, and standardize the fees to make them more affordable. As one mother, Mwamini, put it: ‘If it’s so important to have a birth certificate, why do they make you go around to all these different places to try to get it?’