Aligned with the commemoration of the Day of the African Child observed every 16th of June, and under the 2020 theme of the year “Access to a Child Friendly Justice System in Africa”, the African Union and UNICEF have launched the “No Name Campaign: Accelerating children’s right to legal identity and access to services, including child-friendly justice”. With the increasing realization that registration of children at birth is one of the key elements to accelerate access to a child-friendly justice system for all African children, the campaign seeks to rally for the speedy implementation of commitments by the African Union member states, towards universal registration of children at birth and the urgency to reposition civil registration and vital statistics in Africa, to address the indignity of invisibility.
In examining the elements of a child-friendly justice system, including the application of a child rights-based approach for realizing access to a child-friendly justice system in Africa, the “No Name Campaign” recognizes that children whose births are not registered and who lack proof of their age are more vulnerable to marginalization, discrimination, abuse, and associated protection risks such as child marriage, child labour, forced recruitment to armed groups and forces, and trafficking. A child-friendly justice system refers to all procedures of judicial or administrative nature, whether formal or informal, where children are brought into contact with, or are involved in civil, criminal or administrative law matters. The campaign not only emphasizes the key role that birth registration plays to prove a child’s entitlement to access justice, but underscores that the ideals in Africa’s Agenda 2063 and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, will not be achieved without securing, protecting, and promoting the rights of children as the drivers of Africa’s renaissance.
The digitization of birth registration has brought about gains in a number of countries. In Namibia, for instance, where digitization is well advanced, birth registration is close to 80 per cent. Mozambique has equally achieved significant progress in digitizing registration services at decentralized levels. In Ghana, a scaled-up mobile birth registration system scaled up birth registration from 63 percent in 2016, to 80 percent in 2019. However, Africa is faced with a large digital divide with very few people having access to digital services, including in civil registration. In most countries, the system operates as a combination of paper-based and digitized registration processes, with the strategic goal of transitioning towards digital data processing. To address existing and emerging challenges, the African Union in 2020 adopted the Digital Transformation Strategy 2020-2030, affirming the role of digital technologies and innovation in the achievement of the vision and goals of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
“We have to change our systems and we are committed to moving towards digital, safe and accessible solutions. By digitizing civil-registration systems and centralising data in the form of a legal ID, we are better able to co-ordinate services, which is especially important for children in remote areas or uprooted by conflicts or natural disasters as they cross borders.”, stated Prof. Harrison Victor, AU Commissioner for Economic Affairs. The launch of this “No Name Campaign” will advance the interrelated actions towards access to child justice from the very vital issue of birth registration and also undertake that those important activities are moved to a digital platform. It is a win-win synergy, he concluded.
Africa has in recent years made considerable progress in improving civil registration and vital statistics systems in general, and birth registration in particular. In this regard, the inter-operability between health platforms and civil registry has proved a game changer across the African continent, bringing about commendable gains. Countries such as Ghana, Mali, Uganda and Namibia have almost doubled their new-born registration by making the two sectors inter-operable. In Senegal, between 2014 and 2017, routine registration of children increased by 44 per cent in the four regions where birth registration service points were established in health facilities while in Tanzania, decentralizing birth registration to the local authorities and local health facilities increased certification rates from 10 per cent in 2012 to more than 80 per cent in 2019, in 13 target districts.
But current rates of progress are insufficient in meeting the SDG goal of every child having a legal identity, including birth registration, by 2030. Currently, the under 5 birth registration in Africa stands at 52 per cent. While North African countries have close to a complete birth registration coverage, the rates in the rest of the regions are far behind. Over the past 3 years, in West and Central Africa, the regional average of children under 5 registered at birth increased from 45 per cent to 53 per cent which equals millions of more children registered.
However, despite this promising progress, Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa calls for more ambitious measures to be taken to achieve universal birth registration by 2030. “We have seen the potential of linking birth registration with health platforms but much more can be done. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, around 80 per cent of births occur in health facilities but only 38 per cent of children under 1 are registered at birth. In the most populous country in Africa, Nigeria, birth registration increased from 30 per cent in 2008 to 43 per cent in 2018 because of investments in birth registration through health platforms. With interoperability between birth registration and immunization national systems, millions of more children could have a legal identity in Africa in a sustainable manner”, she stated.
The newly launched campaign also strikes a call of caution that with the COVID-19 pandemic, recent progress is at risk of being lost. The COVID-19 pandemic impacts both civil registration service delivery and the use of services. Several countries have introduced lockdowns and restrictions. Registration centres and service points are being closed, core hours are generally reduced, and staff presence has decreased, thereby reducing the accessibility and availability of services. Civil registration points are also not adequately equipped in meeting safety and hygiene requirements. Use of services is affected because of fear of contamination or lack of transport, particularly in the remote areas. Use of health services has also declined.
While national civil registration reforms have been postponed or put on hold in most countries with the COVID-19 pandemic, the modernization of civil registration systems toward digitization is a continental priority and key to universal birth registration. In this emergency context, the African Union and UNICEF call for:
- Birth registration services to be included in the COVID-19 recovery packages to strengthen primary health care to take innovative models to scale;
- Birth registration to go digital as a means to improve accessibility and availability of services in the era of COVID-19 and beyond, and as a pre-requisite for universal birth registration in Africa.
- Every opportunity to be used to capture children without birth certificates for registration with civil registry. These platforms include most importantly schools as children return to schools but also existing and expanding child and social protection services.
- With the scaling up of these interventions, Africa can emerge from the pandemic as a place where universal birth registration will be a reality.