Recognising the world’s invisible people


As Plan International works hard to register every child born, Alex Court praises the campaign that should significantly decrease the risk of child exploitation

I have never seen my birth certificate, but I am lucky enough to be able to assume I have one. My newfound appreciation for this piece of paper, which can no doubt be sought somewhere online, has sprung from the report published last week called “Count Every Child”.

This document is the culmination of a project launched by the charity Plan International in 2005, which has aimed to increase the proportion of children being registered at birth. It has spanned the poorest countries in the globe and has sought to reach the most isolated communities.

It may not be immediately clear why a charity would spend so much of its resources on issuing a piece of paper to people who would surely be happier to be given food, shelter or medical care.

Asian Child with dollPlan says registering these populations is a crucial first step to achieving these goals. Without proof of who their parents are, or what their nationality is, they are stateless. They are voiceless, invisible citizens without access to vital government services such as education, shelter or food.

With approximately 51 million children each year being born but not registered, the problems resulting from being unregistered are made manifest around the globe in a number of ways.

One group most seriously affected by the lack of a birth certificate are children orphaned by AIDS. Often, unregistered children aren’t entitled to inherit their dead parents’ house as they cannot prove who they are. Not only have they lost parental support, but they are considered squatters in their own homes, and sometimes evicted, forced to live on the streets.

Another concern is sexual harassment. In Ireland, and most developed nations, if an adult has sex with a sixteen-year-old girl, that adult can be convicted of rape. Girls who don’t have a birth certificate cannot prove their age and convictions in such circumstances are difficult to achieve. This doesn’t dissuade the criminally-minded from committing sex crimes, but those who suffer are undoubtedly the children.

Human trafficking is also easier to get away with in areas where inhabitants have never been registered. One country which proves this is the case is Nepal. Rough estimates say 200,000 Nepalese citizens have been trafficked to India, but authorities refuse to pursue these claims, being unable to prove whether the people they find are the Nepalese they were searching for.

The actual methods employed to achieve this goal of registration are incredible in themselves. A clever tactic Plan has wielded concerns legislation. In working with legal teams, the charity has pressured governments to make registration of children a legal requirement. New laws have made registering children an easier process, and these laws are complemented with rules ensuring the accrued data is stored properly.

Plan’s head of global advocacy, Nadya Kassam, has said that “changing the law in a country has a really significant effect on the population. It is the only way to bring about sustainable long-term change.”

Plan hasn’t shied away from remote areas or conflict zones. In such cases, mobile registration units go to the areas and hold registration clinics in public areas. This has happened in rural Burkina Faso, where parents are persuaded to register their children with the offer of a free bed net impregnated with insecticide to stop malaria. Ingeniously, personal health issues are dealt with as wider support networks are established.

In the conflict area where Pakistan rubs alongside Afghanistan, Plan has brought the registration process out to the communities. In this region in particular, where transport networks are either damaged or nonexistent, Plan has had to convince isolated populations to engage in the registration process.

The most worrying obstacle to the success of this programme is how people are supposed to keep hold of their records in times of conflict or natural disaster. People will evacuate their homes – abandoning any documentation registering their birth – to avoid being shot or swallowed up by a hurricane. Work needs to be done to make sure the records remain valid even if the physical evidence vanishes.

One example of a solution is a test case in Tanzania, where documents are being scanned into computer databases. This aims for villages to have records even if their homes are wiped out. How successful this will be remains to be seen, but could be the blueprint for the next phase of the programme if it is successful.

Even though the implementation scheme faces many challenges, Plan really needs to be supported in this program. The help that governments, NGOs and private organisations have been providing needs recognition and should continue. Citizens around the world need to be informed of the importance of Plan’s project and other similar ventures, and be empowered to act to inform others. The support networks we take for granted, and often mercilessly criticise, would be appreciated by the many that have nothing, and we must remember that.