10 August 2014

Who are you?

Over the weekend, I conducted an exercise asking people around me a simple question, “Who are you?” Think about this question for a moment. Have a quick three-sentence response in mind?

In my experience, invariably, the answer began with a name followed by either what one did for a living and/or where they came from or lived. Please do share and tell us more about who you are with #whoareyou. 

The reason behind my exercise was curiosity about identity. Last week, I joined a UNICEF team on a birth registration campaign in Santo (one of Vanuatu’s 83 islands). The week-long campaign started on 24th July coinciding with the celebrations in the country, marking Children’s day at the start of the week and Independence day at the end of the week. 

Birth registration is a permanent and official record of a person’s existence. Anyone not registered is in danger of being denied the right to an official identity, a recognised name and a nationality.  In legal terms, they simply do not exist. With no document to prove how old they are – or even who they are – they could face discrimination and lack access to basic services such as health and education.

A young couple registering their children in Luganville, 
Santo. © UNICEF Pacific./2014/Thakkar 
Birth registration is mandatory in Vanuatu. It is a pivotal document in getting a job, opening a bank account, applying for a passport, appearing for high school examinations. Despite that, in 2008, only 24% of children under the age of 18 were registered. Over the years, UNICEF has been working closely with the government to improve birth registration.  Hospitals are now permitted to conduct birth registration as soon as the child is born. Schools are also allowed to register their students. By mid-2014, these steps helped improve the birth registration rate of children under the age of 18 to about 60%. 

Quite a commendable progress considering over 75% of the total population live in rural areas, and some in remote and difficult to access places. In addition, most people living in the remote areas tend to follow the indigenous traditional Ni-Vanuatu way of life, absolutely uninterested in “modern” comforts or systems. Many are not even aware about birth registration. With no immediate tangible benefit for them, why would they be interested in registering themselves or the birth of their children? What purpose does it serve them?  I asked my colleague Joemela Simeon, a Ni-Vanuatu who is UNICEF’s Child Protection Officer in the country, how does he convince those living the traditional way to register themselves and their children? After all, they are the most vulnerable and perhaps the least informed about birth registration. How does he get them to register? What is the incentive for them? 

His simple, but very effective, pitch is based on the concept of “identity.” Every individual craves to be identified as part of a family, a community, a nation. People want to be recognised, they want to be heard, they want to count for something. This document gives them the recognition they desire. Also, when they or their children are registered as citizens, the system links them to their family tree and ultimately to their land. People of Vanuatu believe their land is their mother. 

Identity and land - these issues have the power of triggering wars. In fact, too many wars are being fought right now as I type this. The hope is that birth registration will go a long way in preventing conflicts, giving people a sense of identity and ensuring no one falls through the cracks, especially the future of this country – the children of Vanuatu.

UNICEF Staff Joemela Simeon helping out in the birth registration
campaign. © UNICEF Pacific./2014/Thakkar 
An added bonus – an infant’s picture on the registration card is taken with the mother. This is, very often, the only printed picture the mother will ever have with her child.   

Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of a Child (CRC) says “Every child has the right to a name and nationality”.

CRC@25: The Convention on the Rights of the Child turns 25 this year. Marking this anniversary year, UNICEF has declared 2014 as the Year of Innovation for Children.  

Neha Thakkar
Communications Officer

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