Mobile campaign boosts registered births in Belize despite COVID-19
In Aguacate, a small Q'eqchi'-Maya village in the south of Belize, Erma Cus and her husband smile as they celebrate the newest resident of their community: their son.
“We registered our son years ago but the birth certificate never arrived. We’re happy because now, with a birth certificate, things will get easier for him as he gets older,” Erma says. Her child is nearly 5 years old.
Birth registration is a fundamental human right, yet in Belize 4 per cent of the population is unregistered. And 14 per cent of those who are registered do not have a birth certificate.
There are also important disparities in birth registration among districts: according to Belize Vital Statistics, in 2018 less than 50 per cent of live births in Toledo District had been registered – leaving the majority of children born in that district not counted.
Without a birth certificate, a person is without an identity and basically does not exist. Children are especially vulnerable and miss out on access to basic social services – it makes it more difficult for them to go to school, see a doctor, or receive financial help if they need it.
In addition, children without birth certificates are at higher risk of abuse, exploitation and violence including forced marriage, human trafficking or statelessness.
In short, without a birth certificate, children are denied their rights.
Why children don’t get registered?
There are many reasons why children don’t get registered, in Belize and globally. As in Erma’s case, sometimes it is gaps in the civil registration system. Other times, parents may be unaware of birth registration, or how important it actually is.
In addition, cost and access often represent an insurmountable barrier. Parents may be unable to afford the costs associated with registration, including travel to registration sites or late fees. And they may live in rural communities, far from registration centres – just like Aguacate.
This was the case for Manuela Tut, who also lives in Aguacate.
“I was very happy when I heard my husband and I were offered the opportunity to register our child now,” she explains. “I wasn’t able to register my child before because that meant going to Dangriga [located over 150 km away] and is quite expensive,” she continues.
Her son has recently turned 4 years old. He has just been registered.
Mobile and relevant: a winning formula to boost birth registration
Draft messages in Spanish, English, Q'eqchi' and Mopan Maya, on the importance of birth registration were. Deliver them with COVID-19 relief packages to help vulnerable families. Have an appointed official from the Belize Vital Statistics Unit present to facilitate mobile birth registration. And watch birth registration rates soar.
After applying twice since her child was born, Erma now holds her son’s birth certificate in her hands. Her determination – and the mobile registration campaign supported by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and UNICEF – made this possible.
The campaign targeted border communities in rural areas in the south, west and north of Belize. This was done to reach some of the most vulnerable people across the country – including children born in indigenous, asylum-seeker, refugee and migrant communities.
To date, 30 communities have been reached and 201 children have been registered in Belize thanks to joint efforts by the Belize Vital Statistics Unit; the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
What can be done to improve birth registration rates?
Improving birth registration rates can be done in a number of ways. For example, by eliminating late registration fees. By increasing the number of trained registrars. And by sending them to remote areas in mobile registration units – as was the case with this mobile registration campaign in Belize.
To reach universal birth registration in the country, UNICEF and UNHCR call for a birth registration system that is equally accessible to all parents, including in the most remote areas; allows for late registration without extra fees; and is free of charge for all.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has strongly recommended that Belize make birth registration free of charge at all stages of the process. UNICEF and UNHCR are deeply concerned that Belize has just increased the amount of the fine for late registration (12 months after birth).
Why birth registration in the midst of a pandemic?
No birth registration means no proof of name or nationality. In legal terms, these children do not exist – and the repercussions can last a lifetime.
This is why birth registration is vital for all children, always.
“As a member of the National Birth Registration Steering Committee, UNHCR is committed to combating incidences that may lead to statelessness, and encourages every step towards the registration of not only every refugee child, but every child born in Belize,” says Kerrie Williams, Senior Protection Assistant at UNHCR.
Michel Guinand, UNICEF Policy Specialist, Programme Coordinator and Social Policy Specialist, also stresses the importance for every child to have a birth certificate: “A birth certificate is a child’s first line of defense against forced marriage, human trafficking and statelessness. Furthermore, quality vital statistics are essential to guide national policies and programmes.”
Specifically in the context of COVID-19, after restrictions are lifted, unregistered children will face a number of barriers. For example, when they need to access public services, such as healthcare, humanitarian assistance, financial aid and other social services.
This is why birth registration is more relevant than ever.