Birth registration: The first step in child protection

Editor's note: Birth registration -- documentation that ensures the government knows you exist -- is a growing issue worldwide, especially in fragile states where governments are either unable or unwilling to implement effective birth registration policies. For more on the importance of birth registration, read "Why registration matters: Children are cared for and protected."

When you think about congressional testimony, you think about big rooms, hot lights, and lawmakers peering over their spectacles to ask the hard-hitting questions about the most pressing issues of the day.

When discussing the importance of child protection, you might expect an array of complex and lofty rhetoric that hints at the largeness of the issue, but fails to tackle the concrete steps that a nation, community, or individual can take to ensure that children are protected from abuse, neglect, exploitation, and violence.

In a congressional hearing that deals with child protection, you can expect to hear lots of statements and suggestions. But do you really expect to hear about birth registration?

I was recently invited by the House of Representatives to give testimony on the issue of birth registration to the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The focus of the hearing was on international child abduction. I was asked to come and give a global perspective about how other countries, especially fragile states, could work to prevent abuses like abduction. Here’s an excerpt from my testimony:

Governments in fragile states are often unwilling or unable to provide the formal services or support the informal mechanisms required to protect their most vulnerable populations. For that reason, it is incumbent upon organizations like World Vision and donors like the U.S. to partner with such governments to fill in the gaps until the country can do it on their own.

In Bolivia, a joint effort between the government and World Vision helped to provide proper identification to children. ©2010 World Vision

The issue of identification documents is of extreme importance. In fact, something as simple as birth registration can determine whether children remain in the care of those who love them or slip through the cracks, never to be seen again. Having proper documentation and officials trained in how to identify suspicious behavior is crucial to protecting vulnerable children, especially in fragile states.

Since the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, many organizations, including World Vision, have worked to train border guards to prevent illegal movement of children. There have been several documented cases where trained and alert Haitian officials were able to stop children from being taken illegally across the border.

In one case, a 13-year-old girl was found with a man who could provide no proof of relation. The girl was placed in the family tracing system, and her mother was able to come and provide proof that she was indeed related to the girl, and had not intended for her to be taken anywhere, let alone out of the country. In this, and in so many other cases, the importance of documentation and officials implementing protection policies have meant the difference between a happy reunification and a life cut tragically short.

Birth registration is not a cure-all. However, it is one of the first systems of protection a family can depend on when a precious new gift is brought into their lives. Children lacking identification and registration often find life that much more daunting. It’s crucial for every child to be counted and known. Only then can a child walk down the path toward life in all its fullness.

I am grateful to have been able to highlight this issue, and I hope our lawmakers will take it to heart.

Read related post: Why registration matters: Children are cared for and protected

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