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By Andrea Andres
24 May 2023

Hidden away in drawers, tucked in the safety of our parents' homes, or perhaps even lost, many of us have birth certificates that we hardly give a second thought to unless we desperately need them. 

But consider the millions of children across the globe for whom this seemingly small piece of paper holds the power to unlock their fundamental rights or leave them unrecognized in their own countries. 

"It is critical that all children are registered at birth to ensure their health and wellbeing. Without a birth certificate, a child is at greater risk of statelessness and exclusion from essential services including health care and education."

Cornelius Williams
UNICEF Associate Director of Child Protection

What is birth registration? 

A father signs a birth registration book.
A father signs his baby’s birth certificate at the birth registry located in Venezuela.
© UNICEF/UN0673076/Pocaterra

Birth registration is the official recording of a birth by a government authority. Once a child is registered, a birth certificate is a document issued by the state to the parent or caregiver as proof of this registration. 

In an ideal scenario, birth registration and birth certificates would go hand in hand. However, in some countries, the procedures for registering a child and obtaining birth certificates can differ or be impacted by barriers including a lack of resources and investment in accurate and comprehensive civil registration systems. 

A woman holds her baby and her baby's birth certificate.
Aline from the Democratic Republic of the Congo proudly holds the birth certificate of her daughter Elysée, only a few days old.
© UNICEF/UN0585251/Wenga

Today, one in four children under the age of five are not registered at birth around the world. And even when they are, many may not have proof of registration or a birth certificate to verify their identity and age.  

Why is birth registration important?  

The first step to securing a child's future is giving them a legal identity. Birth registration is a fundamental right of every child and helps to ensure that every child has access to basic services and protection. 

A parent holding their child and their child's birth certificate.
Nelson, a 12-day old baby, receives his birth certificate at a health centre in the south of Chad.
© UNICEF/UN0711941/Dejongh

Denise, a 21-year-old mother of three, gave birth to Nelson at a health centre in the south of Chad, and returned to receive his birth certificate, knowing how crucial it was for Nelson. 

"My first two children do not have birth certificates. In the past you could not declare in the hospital, and it was always postponed to go to the municipality. Now it is much easier. They do it at birth, and you receive it during a postnatal visit. But my husband is currently busy declaring the other children. The oldest is four and needs it to enrol in school."

Mother of three
Two children hold up their birth certificates.
Merline, 12, and Koko, nine, proudly hold their birth certificates in front of their house. They have benefited from catch-up birth registration through vaccination services in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
© UNICEF/UN0729615/Mulala

A birth certificate is more than just a piece of paper. It's a symbol of hope, of opportunity, and of protection. It gives children a sense of identity, a connection to their family, and a place in their community. 

A newborn baby next to his birth certificate.
Hamdan, a 10-day-old boy, receiving his birth certificate, at a civil status centre in east Chad.
© UNICEF/UN0594636/Dejongh & © UNICEF/UN0594639/Dejongh

Fatime, 30, has registered all four of her children, including Hamdan. “I’m aware about the importance of a birth certificate,” says Fatime.

Three boys hold up their birth certificates.
A group of children in an Internally Displaced Peoples camp in Yemen after receiving their birth certificates. Birth certificates were issued with the support of UNICEF and its partner to help children have access to education.
© UNICEF/UN0770749/Alqadimi

Whilst education is a fundamental right of every child, many children may be denied access to school without a birth certificate. They are necessary for education as they prove a child's age and identity, enabling enrollment and ensuring equal opportunities for all children. 

What happens when an emergency hits? 

A smiling father holding up his newborn.
A father taking his child for a checkup at a hospital in Vanuatu.
© UNICEF/UN0822257/Shing

Birth registration is not just a task for governments; it's a responsibility for communities too. UNICEF works with local partners to ensure families in every community can access birth registration services, even when emergencies strike. 

In March 2023, Vanuatu experienced two cyclones, causing significant damage to infrastructure and affecting almost half of the population. UNICEF responds rapidly to emergencies by working with local authorities and partners to record registrations and document individuals, including children, affected by the crisis. The aim is to ensure that those who have lost their birth certificates or other identification papers can receive new ones or temporary identification documents promptly. 

A destroyed building, surrounding by rubble.
A public hall destroyed by a cyclone in Vanuatu.
© UNICEF/UN0820664/Shing

In the aftermath of the cyclones, 5,882 people were registered, including 3,007 women and girls. At least 53% of the registrations were children under 18 and approximately 10% were for new birth certificates. 

UNICEF is committed to reaching every child, even those in the most hard-to-reach areas when a crisis hits.   

For every child, an identity 

A young girl holds up her birth certificate.
Fatimata received her birth certificate in the east of Burkina Faso.
© UNICEF/UN0487561/Dejongh

Every child counts, no matter where they are. Over thirty years, UNICEF has been a key global player in birth registration. In recent years, we worked with governments and communities worldwide to register more than 16 million births and issue birth certificates to over 13 million people. 

UNICEF’s international report, Birth Registration for Every Child by 2030: Are we on track? calls for five actions to protect all children, including: 

  •  Providing every child with a certificate upon birth. 
  •  Empowering all parents, regardless of gender, to register their children at birth. 
  •  Linking birth registration to other systems to facilitate every child’s right to services including health, social protection and education. 
  •  Investing in safe and innovative technological solutions to facilitate birth registration. 
  •  Engaging communities to demand birth registration for every child. 

By 2030, UNICEF seeks to fulfil this promise because every child, everywhere, deserves an identity.