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What if the government didn’t know you existed? What if there was no record of your existence anywhere? No schools’ applications, no hospital registrations, not even a membership card for your local supermarket with your name on it. How are we supposed to protect the people and defend their rights, if they don’t exist?

Article 6 of the Universal Human Rights Declaration states that “Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.” The first recognition, and dare say, the most important one, is the birth certificate. It’s the very first piece of documentation that proves your existence to the State. It, therefore, enables you to receive the government’s help, social security, social assistance, etc. It also means that you are recognized by the law as a person, and thus, the law must protect you.

If the government doesn’t recognize you, it cannot provide you with access to education, food and health. Moreover, it cannot defend you or search for you if you go missing. Victims of human trafficking, child labor and child marriage are children whose existence isn’t known. And thus, it makes them the preferred victims.

The birth certificate is the first step to provide two key pieces of information: the name of the birth parents and the place the child was born. This way, a nationality can be provided, and a state is obligated to recognize and protect that child.

UN studies have shown that less than 1 in 2 births is registered in sub Saharan Africa. Some form of identification is required worldwide in order to access basic services (depending on the country):  healthcare, vaccines, banking, even buying a SIM card. A higher rate of birth registration coverage proves to be an ally when it comes to improving education, health and economy. Even nutrition and migration are highly affected.

Although there is not a universal solution, countries proved to be taking measures to tackle this issue: Tanzania, for instance, started implementing registration centers in already existing infrastructures, such as health centers which removed the fee associated and automatized the procedure. In Angola, what used to be a complicated and gender discriminatory issue, became simpler: unlike before, where only the father could register the child and the mother was legally prevented from doing so, the laws were changed to allow mothers to register their children alone.

To prevent and solve childhood statelessness, one of the UNHCR’s goals, three main solutions are proposed: “Allow children to gain the nationality of the country in which they are born if they would otherwise be stateless; Reform laws that prevent mothers from passing their nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers; Eliminate laws and practices that deny children nationality because of their ethnicity, race or religion; Ensure universal birth registration to prevent statelessness.”

Human rights are to be protected, safeguarded and defended from all violations. To fight for justice, equality, health, education, among others, we must fight to make sure every human being is recognized as such in the eyes of the decision makers.

In WYA’s Declaration on Good Governance and Human Flourishing,  government officials, families and individuals are called to promote human flourishing through governance that is grounded in respect for human dignity, solidarity, and the common good, and ensures that each person has what he or she needs to thrive.

It is worth highlighting that, although the government may be a key element in protecting human rights (making sure they are being respected, and creating policies to do that exactly), it is not the one to grant human dignity. Human dignity is an intrinsic and inalienable value that every individual has, regardless of whether it is recognized by the government. It is because we possess dignity that human rights exist to protect and promote it.

Published: November 26, 2020
Written by Mariana Costa Cristo, a WYA Headquarters Intern from Portugal