Birth registration and birth certificates are very topical at the moment, with the Victorian Law Reform Commission releasing its community report on this issue. The report, which contains 26 recommendations, is intended to make it easier for people to register the births of their children and reduce the cost of getting a birth certificate for disadvantaged people.
Achieving universal birth registration is a global problem. It is estimated that around the world, over 48 million children are not registered at birth and therefore are not issued a birth certificate. Bishop Desmond Tutu has referred to a birth certificate as a “small little paper” but one that “actually establishes who you are and gives access to the rights and the privileges, and the obligations of citizenship.” Not being registered means that many children are growing up invisible to the eyes of the state, blocking them from certain rights and leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.
The World Health Organisation has pointed out that a child who is not registered may not have access to immunisations, be able to attend school, vote or register their own children. They may not accrue a pension and the state will not be aware when they die. It is as if they were never born at all.
The United Nation’s Committee on the Rights of the Child recently criticised Australia for failing to ensure that all Indigenous children are registered at birth and issued with a birth certificate. It noted that:
The Committee is concerned about the difficulties faced by Aboriginal persons in relation to birth registration. In particular, the Committee is concerned that obstacles to birth registration arising from poor literacy levels, the lack of understanding of the requirements and advantages of a birth registration as well as inadequacies in the support provided by authorities have not been resolved. The Committee further notes with concern that a birth certificate is subject to administrative costs, posing an additional hindrance for persons in economically disadvantaged situations.
This body of experts recommended that Australia review its birth registration system and issue all children with a birth certificate for free. Receiving criticism like this from such an esteemed body got the attention of the former Attorney-General, Mark Dreyfus who urged his state and territory counterparts to consider issuing birth certificates for free (see here and here).
The Victorian Law Reform Commission takes a different view to that of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, and has not recommended that all children receive their first birth certificate for free. It states in its Report that “the appropriate course is to address the issues of vulnerable people and groups, rather than make holistic recommendations which would involve significant loss of revenue to government — revenue which is applied to the very matters of birth registrations and birth certificates.”
There is more to ensuring universal birth registration than addressing the question of fees. Factors such as literacy levels, language, awareness of the importance of birth registration and confidence in dealing with authorities may all contribute to low levels of birth registration within Australian Indigenous communities.
Although the problems that Indigenous Australians face in engaging with the birth registration system have only started to receive attention in relatively recent times, other countries have been tackling such problems for a long time, and many have achieved great success in significantly increasing rates of birth registration. Can Australia learn anything from the programs and practices that have been implemented in other parts of the world?
The answer is yes. Many countries tackling this issue have identified barriers similar to those facing Indigenous Australians – lack of awareness of the benefits of registration, centralised systems that are not accessible to remote communities, fees for obtaining a birth certificate and mistrust of the government authorities responsible for birth registration.
Plan International, a global child focused aid and development agency, has been running a campaign to increase birth registration since 2005, and has facilitated the registration of over 40 million people in 32 countries. Part of the campaign has been a focus on collecting best practice and spreading innovative local solutions to local barriers.
Involving the community and children in awareness raising is critical. Many families are not aware of the short- and long-term benefits of birth registration, and in some cases mistrust the authorities responsible for it.
It has been demonstrated that raising awareness of the benefits of birth registration increases demand. Furthermore, involving communities and children in the design of birth registration policies and programs ensures they are compatible with local realities. This in turn helps build trust in the system.
A low level of awareness of the benefits of birth registration and birth certificates in Uganda was found to contribute to low rates of registration. In 2006, a six-month awareness raising campaign was launched, which used multiple media to spread the word about the benefits of birth registration. The campaign included advertisements, role plays, jingles, posters and brochures. Local radio stations were involved and were one of the most popular elements of the campaign, with requests for repeated programs and many call-ins during the broadcast of birth-registration shows. The success of this strategy of multiple messages to appeal to different audiences was evidenced (p33) by the statistics: in November 2006 only 45 per cent of births were registered but by June 2007 69 per cent were registered, including retrospective registrations of older children.
Remote communities, such as those found in many parts of Australia, often have the lowest rates of birth registration. The centralisation of birth registration in capital cities makes it less accessible to those living remotely. Costs associated with transport and time away from work or family commitments can be eliminated if registration comes to you. Mobile birth registration units target areas with low rates of registration and were piloted in Cambodia (p45) in 2004. The mobile units were supported by training of volunteers and staff, public information campaigns and reviews of relevant civil registration law. A key aspect of the pilot campaign was that birth certificates were issued free of charge. After 10 months of the mobile registration program, more than seven million Cambodians – close to 50 per cent of the population – had received birth certificates. The scheme was so successful it has been replicated in many other countries including Bolivia, Ghana, The Philippines and Timor-Leste.
Even in countries, like Australia, with overall high levels of birth registration, marginalised populations often go unregistered. These pockets of vulnerability often require a tailored approach. In Honduras, fourteen satellite registration offices were established in municipalities consisting of mostly Indigenous populations living in remote areas. This resulted in communities being able to more easily register their children. Satellite birth registration offices and mobile registration units can help to address issues of mistrust of government authorities, as they are often staffed by local volunteers and mobile registrars who have had specialised training.
Australia can do better in registering the births of all Indigenous Australians. Looking at how other countries have responded to low rates of birth registration among marginalised and remote populations is a good starting point.
Dr Paula Gerber is Associate Professor of the Law School at Monash University and Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. Amalia Fawcett is the Senior Child Rights Specialist at Plan International Australia.