10 September 2013

Birth registrations: The right to be recognised

By Karen Allen, UNICEF Pacific Representative

Registering a newborn
© UNICEF Pacific/2013/Allen

The right to citizenship- something many take for granted - is a right not realised by children whose births are never registered. The people of Vanuatu – the Ni-Vanuatu – only achieved independence 33 years ago, and prior to that existed under a uniquely inefficient and rights-denying “Condominium” that consisted of parallel British and French rule.

Under the Condominium, the Ni-Vanuatu were not considered citizens in their own country, and had to apply to both colonial masters in order to get a passport to travel abroad.  Hours of their labour time were sometimes gambled away by plantation owners. Worse, thousands were taken as forced labour on plantations in Australia and elsewhere in a scheme called “blackbirding.” Thus, the right to citizenship and birth registration is quite new in Vanuatu. And for people who continue to live all their lives in rather remote villages, never accessing public schools or public health care, birth registration isn't a priority, especially if the system is not easily accessible and costs money.

The Ministry of Interior (MoI) through the Civil Registry (CR) department has a civil registration system but a very low percentage of births (35%) are actually registered for the reasons mentioned above. UNICEF is working with the MoI to change this, removing bottlenecks and gradually expanding from towns to rural areas, island by island (there are 83 of them!)  Now mothers who give birth in a hospital can register the birth and get a birth certificate and a booklet on infant care, right in the maternity ward, before leaving the hospital. It is free if you do it right after birth; there is a small fee if done later or if  the the registration certificate is lost.  This addresses two bottlenecks – the fee for the certificate and the time and cost of people having to travel long distances to come back for the birth certificate after registering. The birth registration clerk at Port Vila hospital tells me, “The photo of mother and baby on the back of the certificate is a real bonus, too, lots of mothers come to my desk just because they want that!” The obstetrician in charge, having a rare pause between deliveries, mentions, “UNICEF-MoH support for that clerk post is critical, my nurses do not have a minute to spare, we have so many deliveries here every day, and ante-natal and post-natal work to do, too.” 

 Civil registration office in Blackman Town
© UNICEF Pacific/2013/Allen
A 90 minute propeller flight away from Port Vila, on Tanna, the UNICEF team takes me to the civil registration office in Blackman Town – so named to emphasise that the former colonial masters are out-of there! The mother and father who are registering their child's  birth are there because they have a work opportunity in New Zealand and have been told that all three of them, not just mother and father, need proof of citizenship. We suggest to them that they should bring all of their children, not just the new born, for registration. Father says, “That is a very good idea, we will do that on the next market trip to town.”  The registry clerk laments that paper forms keep running out, and we gently remind him that these are just application forms, no longer the official certificate, so he can just photocopy them. Unfortunately paper registration is still required by law. The MoI deserves a lot of credit for having a flexible system to register all ages, and to take different forms of proof of parenthood– in other countries, we cannot make headway because of a tangle of old fashioned rules and heavy bureaucratic processes. 

With my usual zeal to innovate, I ask the UNICEF team whether cell phones, personal data devices or solar charged laptops are being used to register births where it is not affordable or practical (because, for example, there is no electricity, no cell coverage let alone internet) to have a full registration point. It seems a cell phone pilot did not work well on one island – but I talk to the team about trying again, learning from what went wrong. Taking risks, and knowing that we will sometimes fail, is part of learning and progress. I have a vision of using solar panels, car batteries and rugged, low cost tablets or laptops. I hope I can blog about a new pilot next year!

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