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Finding Nigeria’s 30 million unregistered children

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Still grappling with the intractable trinity of Boko Haram, herdsmen killings and kidnapping, the Federal Government may be toying with a time bomb waiting to explode as the number of unregistered births, especially that of under-five children continues to rise, writes IYABO LAWAL.

Half-naked children in a village in Kano State were seen huddled and letting out a shriek as they dispersed in various directions. They were playing hide-and-seek game. One Ishaku – aged four – peeped through a broken fence made of clay with mucus streaming down his nostrils. His twin sister, Joana, was hiding behind an orange tree, giggling. Zion, who is nine months older than the twins, lay flat on the ground with a mound shielding his face and a three-year-old Miriam was still trying to find refuge, just as the evening sun cast a shadow on the seeker, two-year-old Jarius.

They were all happy little siblings loved by their parents and adored by the community. As popular as they were in their neighbourhood, the Nigerian government does not have an idea they exist – as their births have not been registered. If they do not make it out of their environment, they will grow up in oblivion and be considered stateless and illegal by the government that should cater for their basic needs.

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Some seven in 10 children across Nigeria do not have their births registered. They are the missing children. By last year, only 47 in every 100 children aged under five were registered, according to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey. The National Population Commission (NPC) deployed RapidSMS, an online database to track registered births nationwide.

The database collects real-time information over SMSs sent by birth registrars scattered across the country, ticking upward on each new registration. In August alone, the births of 144,047 children aged under one were registered. A total 223,227 children aged one to five were registered, alongside 92,387 children aged over five.

The dashboard updates twice monthly. It is useful as a monitoring tool and allows states to analyse how well the birth registration runs within their territories. But it also opens up a huge gap in birth registration. Nigeria is estimated to have an annual birth cohort of around seven million children born every year. Only eight in every 100 of them are registered in the country, the RapidSMS database indicates. That’s more than half of all children born each year unaccounted for, officially.

At the moment, there is a growing army of ‘illegal’ and ‘non-existing’ children in Nigeria. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), about 17 million of Nigeria’s children do not have birth certificates – making it second only to India, a country teeming with 71 million unregistered children.The agency, at a recent media dialogue on birth registration in Kano raised the alarm that among registered births in the country, under-five children constitute just eight per cent of expected 32 million births – that is 31 million births unaccounted for. These children can easily be stolen, kidnapped or trafficked.

In addition, millions of especially under-five children encountering the formal health system to receive vaccines within five years are unregistered, due to inadequate birth registrars.This is not a sudden phenomenon. According to experts in the field of birth registration and population, the timed bomb of unregistered births have been ticking for decades in Nigeria with successive governments paying half-hearted attention to it.

The first conscious effort by the Federal Government to have a universal system of registration of births and deaths began in 1988 when the then military government promulgated the Births and Deaths Compulsory Registration Decree 39 of 1979. The decree was aimed at establishing a uniform national and state level registration hierarchy, including the appointment of a registrar general.

The promulgation of Compulsory Registration of Births and Deaths Decree No 69 of 1992, gave the authority to register these events to the National Population Commission (NPC). It also empowered the commission to establish a vital registration system nationwide. During its 18 years of operation, the commission made considerable improvements, with the creation of 2,322 registration centres spread across all local government areas with a maximum of three centres per local government areas.

Between 2003 and 2005, the NPC had developed an action plan to create a more sustainable birth registration system. The plan included the involvement of every part of society, local communities and stakeholders, especially to help raise awareness on the importance of birth registration. In addition, efforts were made for a better coordination between relevant government ministries and institutions involved in birth registration processes.

Against that backdrop, between 2005 and 2008, the NPC waived the payment of registration fees because payment of fees in the past had hindered considerable number of parents from registering the births of their children. The waiver, coupled with heightened sensitisation, resulted in a slight increase of birth registration from a former national figure of 28 per cent in 2001 to an average of 30.2 per cent in 2006.

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Today, those figures have dropped sharply: for under-five birth registration the figures are 16 per cent, 15 per cent and 9 per cent in 2016, 2017 and 2018 respectively.Speaking on the development, an assistant director at the population commission, Hapsatu Isiyaku, said: “According to the 2013 Demographic Health Survey, birth registration of under-five children in Nigeria is approximately 30 per cent while 70 per cent remained unregistered and in legal terms do not exist.”Adducing reasons why 70 per cent of those children are ‘non-existent’, she disclosed that about 62 per cent of birth occurred at home with no efforts at registering the births later.

Even though there is a law backing registration of births in the country, it has not been given the needed teeth to bite. The law also empowered the commission to establish vital registration systems across the nation. This mandate of the commission was further strengthened and recognised under section 24 of the third schedule of the 1999 constitution of the federal republic of Nigeria. The integration of births, deaths and stillbirths into the health care system was approved at the 55th National Council on Health meeting in 2012 at Abuja.

That collaboration yielded a positive result on the part of the NPC by providing a wider coverage of births registration in Nigeria. The synergy brought about the use of health officials into the recording of births at the place of its occurrence particularly in hospitals, maternities, and health centres among others. In collaboration with the UNICEF, radio programmes were ran sensitising, on a daily basis, on the importance of registration of births and deaths. The approach and process enabled birth registration of at least 680,657 under-five children in 15 local councils, 150 wards and 1041 communities, whose births would never have been registered.

Currently, 3,411,419 (females 1,652,248; males 1,759,171) children in different age bands have been registered in the first half of 2018.However, some challenges remain. According to experts in the field, there is the problem of inadequate registers. There is also the issue of penetration into hinterlands among other issues.
“The bottlenecks are the political will, the capacity of the current government to improve the number of birth registers. We have only about 4,000 registers in a country of 180 million people. We have an insufficient workforce, insufficient infrastructure, and poor resources. We have big differences between the urban and rural area, birth registration not reaching people in hard-to-reach areas, parents’ lack of awareness on birth registration, poverty, areas of insurgency. These are serious bottlenecks that are affecting birth registration process,” said a UNICEF Representative in Nigeria, Sharon Oladiji.

Experts like Oladiji pointed out that the challenges should not be glossed over because Nigeria has the largest increase in numbers of births and child population. The greatest number of births in Africa, according to the UN, takes place in Nigeria. Therefore, by 2030, 136 million births would have taken place in Nigeria.
That represents 19 per cent of all African babies and six per cent of the global total. In addition, by 2050, Nigeria alone will account for almost one tenth of all births in the world. Also, Nigeria is projected to add from 2031 to 2050 an additional 224 million babies –21 per cent of the births in Africa and eight per cent of all births in the world.

In view of phenomenal increase in number of unregistered under-five births, the UNICEF is calling for a special attention to birth registration of that category.A little history may help to force the hand of the government to press the panic button and do something urgently. In 1950, only 39 million children under five, 109 million children under 18 and 50 million adolescents lived in Africa.  In 2015, these numbers increased to 179 million, 547 million and 257 million. Over the next 15 years until 2030 the child population under five will grow by 22 per cent to 220 million. The number of children under five is projected to increase from 32 million in 2015 to 58 million by 2050.

Currently, only eight per cent of under-five children are registered in Nigeria, though the 2017 national data revealed that 46.8 per cent of under-five births were registered. Only 44 per cent of Africa’s births are registered, leaving an estimated 85 million children under-five unregistered. Eight of the 10 countries with the lowest levels of birth registration are in sub-Saharan Africa, with Nigeria having the largest population of unregistered children.If the under-five phenomenon continues, it means there will be no official record of their full names, parents, place of birth, date of birth and nationality. It also means that their access to basic services is under threat. Even frightening is that their official ‘invisibility’ increases their vulnerability to abuse and exploitation. Worse still, going by the law, these children do not exist and the violations of their rights will go unnoticed.

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Apart from Oladiji’s recipe to tackling this problem, the government across all levels should device simpler and inexpensive means of capturing birth data by empowering chiefs and local schools to serve as birth registrars and registration centres, equipping them with devices as simple as a mobile phone to send an SMS of details of every birth registered. The government should also provide incentives for birth registration and sanctions for those who do not register the births of their children, educating them on what their children stand to lose in practical terms.

As the UNICEF noted, birth registration data, when correctly collected can play an important role in the planning of a country’s economic and social development. It can help identify geographic, social, economic, and gender disparities within national boundaries and registering the child will enable the government to plan and implement basic social services, monitor, evaluate and report on the impact of its social and economic policies. It will also ensure that resources are allocated to where they are really needed within different geographical areas or different groups in society.

In conclusion, the government must remember its statutory responsibilities as decree No. 69 of 1992 on vital registration states that registration shall be carried out free of charge, within a period of 60 days from the date of birth. The Child Rights Act in its section five states that: “Every child has the right to a name and the birth of every child shall be registered.” The right of every child to be registered at birth, to acquire a name and nationality, and the responsibilities of the government in this area are also identified in international conventions, which have been ratified by the Nigerian government.For instance, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 24 said: “Every child shall be registered immediately after birth and shall have a name. Every child has the right to a nationality.”


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