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First steps

First steps

Vital events registration in Ethiopia

In 2011, only seven percent of Ethiopian children under the age of five were registered at birth. With no proof of age or identity, children do not have the minimal protection needed against child marriage, child labor, trafficking or detention and prosecution as an adult. The absence of a legal framework for a national vital events registration and vital statistics system has resulted in unconventional and uncoordinated practices of producing civil status evidence, such as the issuance of birth, death and marriage certificates by hospitals, churches and municipalities. In response to the situation, the Government of Ethiopia adopted in 2012 a comprehensive law governing the institutional and operational framework of vital events registration that includes the registration of births, deaths and other vital events. The establishment of the system is in its inception phase, but significant progress has been made on the institutional framework and on developing the necessary resources. Gillian Mellsop, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representative to Ethiopia, sat with Esete Yeshitla – a contributor to The Reporter – for an exclusive interview and discussed topics ranging from vital events registration to children’s rights and other correlated issues. Excerpts:

The Reporter: How long have you been here? Where was your assignment before you represented in Ethiopia? Is your job challenging or how do you find Ethiopia?

I have been a representative for the last two and half years.  I came here from four years in China. I have to say this is the most fascinating and challenging job of my whole career in international development and in UNICEF. Ethiopia is a very exciting country to work in and has a very committed government.  Everything in terms of children’s right is improving.  It is really a pleasure to work in a country, where we see all the indications are improving for children.

Ethiopia started registering vital events registration in more organized way just last year. The program has been decentralized through the different states of Ethiopia. Which regional states does UNICEF support? Who are your stakeholders? What was the rationale behind it?

UNICEF supports all regional states of Ethiopia including the two city administrations.   UNICEF’s main implementing partners are the Federal and Regional Vital Events Registration Agencies. However, due to the role and responsibilities bestowed upon the health sector, UNICEF also partners in Ministry of Health and is regional counterparts.

Ethiopia has the lowest rate of birth registration in the East and Southern African region. The 2016 Ethiopia Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS) showed that only three percent of children in the country under the age of five were registered with civil authorities. Birth registration is a critical first step in ensuring the legal protection of children. Children will not enjoy their fundamental rights if they are not officially registered and have a birth certificate.

Birth registration statistics as part of vital statistics are fundamental to inform immediate, medium-term and long –term planning for children’s access to basic services. They generate information about the size, sex and age of the child population, which help governments to plan effectively for education and health, among other services. Data provided through birth registration is also important for monitoring progress towards key development indicators, such as the Growth and Transformation Plan II (2016-2020) and Sustainable Development Goal 16, which includes, the provision of legal identity for all, including birth registration. The indicator that monitors this target is the Ethiopian Demographics and Health Survey indicator - proportion of children under five years of age whose births have been registered with a civil authority, by age.

Who are your donors?

The governments of Canada, Italy, Netherlands and the World Bank.

Given the status of birth registration in the country, it’s a difficult task for all stake holders including the Government. What is UNICEF’S role or how are you coordinating with the government?

UNICEF supports the Government of Ethiopian to achieve its GTP II target on which the Government made a commitment to a 50 percent birth registration. In this regard, UNICEF provides technical and financial support to the Government of Ethiopia both for the federal and regional Vital Events Registration Agency (VERA). UNICEF’s  technical support relates to strengthening  services through technical support and advocacy to reform of policies and laws in line with international standards;  capacity building of the civil registrars to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of vital events registration; supporting demand creation activities that increase the interest of parents for registration of vital events –notably births, and technical support to strengthen the connection between the health sector and VERA for registration of newborns.

In addition, UNICEF mobilizes funds to improve the technical and institutional capacity of the vital events registration structures from federal level to the lowest administrative units - kebeles. This was possible thanks to our generous donors.

What are the benefits of the government due to birth registration program? And how does it correlate with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

As explained earlier birth registration statistics is essential to inform immediate, medium-term and long–term planning for children’s access to basic services as it generates information about the size, sex and age of the child population. Data generated from birth registration system is vital to monitor progress towards key development indicators such as Sustainable Development Goal.  Under Goal 16.9 the government has committed to provide legal identity for all including birth registration. Legal identity including birth registration is necessary to access basic social services such as education, health and social welfare. Because of this and the interconnection between the various indicators, access to birth registration services will have important implications for the achievement of many of the other SDGs.

Briefly, what other projects does UNICEF have in the country?

UNICEF emphasis on building sustained community resilience through community based interventions that are vital to bridge disparities. UNICEF program in Ethiopia are also agile, prioritizing the most vulnerable in the face of complex emergencies. To achieve this, UNICEF has various program in the areas of education, nutrition, water and sanitation, health, child protection, social policy and evidence for social inclusion and emergency responses. We also focus on cross cutting issues such as early childhood development, adolescents- especially girls, resilience and urban programming to support the country’s ambitious goal of reaching a middle income country by the year 2025.

UNICEF is keen on promoting birth registration in the country. Why is this priority when you have many other challenges to address to? Do you find it difficult to solicit support on birth registration due to other UNICEF key priorities?

UNICEF firmly believes that birth registration is part of an effective civil registration system that acknowledges the person’s existence before the law since establishes family ties and tracks major events of an individual’s life, from life birth to marriage and death.

Legal identity – in addition to being a fundamental right – is a major pathway for helping ensure that children realize the rights to which they are entitled across protection, health and a range of other sectors. Having proof of age and identity can serve as a protective factor from situations of exploitation, such as child labor and also to protect against child marriage.

Therefore, UNICEF is focusing on birth registration, in addition to its other priority areas, because timely, complete and accurate data of civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) including birth registration forms the foundation for appropriate decision-making on policies, financing and service delivery.

We have been very fortunate. Resource partners recognize the importance of having a functioning civil and vital events registration system and have been very generous and supportive of Ethiopia’s effort to improve its CRVS system. As I mentioned earlier, several donors including the governments of Canada, Italy, Netherlands and the World Bank are supporting the birth registration program and other donors are also in the process to add in their support to the program.

What are the parameters to say projects are successful?

Our main indicator for the success of birth registration is results at the level of the child. This means the number of children under the age of five those births are registered against the EDHS data of 2016, where it indicates currently only three percent are registered. As the vital events system was launched in August 2016, this serves as an effective baseline against which to measure progress. Therefore, an improvement this indicator in the next survey will be our parameter for success.

Do you think VERA is successful?  What are the strategic results? Are they achieved when you see it form UNICEF’S point of view?

We can say that VERA is very committed to achieving the government targets and is working at all levels to mobilize all resources to make this a reality. After the launch of a conventional civil registration system only a year ago a lot of achievements were noticed. One achievement is geographic coverage: more than 77 percent of kebeles have started providing birth registration and certification services. Addis Ababa followed by Amhara and Benishangul-Gumuz regional states has the highest coverage (100 percent and 99.4 percent respectively); Somali has the lowest coverage with 10 percent and Afar second lowest at 44.8 percent.

The other achievement is enactment of the Vital Events Registration and National Identify Card proclamation (amendment Proclamation No 1049/2017) which was approved in July 2017 and allows for the registration of vital events of refugees and aims to strengthen the linkage of registration of vital events with the health sector to address some of the bottlenecks from the experiences. To operationalize the registration of refugees, directives are being finalized with the technical input of UNICEF and UNHCR.

These achievements indicate that Ethiopia will make a remarkable progress in few years’ time if the commitment and support to provide efficient and effective registration system and demand is generated from parents to use the system. UNICEF remains committed to support the federal and regional VERA in achieving the targets set in the GTP II and see every child born in Ethiopia is timely registered and given a legal identification which is the base for accessing key services necessary for survival and development.

Child trafficking is also the other problem children are facing. Children are subjected to forced labor or forced prostitution.  For instance, Eritrean migrants who cross borders face rape, forced prostitution. Even, in migration camps such children face violence or sexual abuse. What is the role of UNICEF on such cases?

Millions of children are on the move annually and this puts them at risk of violence and exploitation, including trafficking. First it is critical to have the evidence of what is happening in order to help identify the most appropriate response. UNICEF doesn’t have current interventions in refugee camps bordering Eritrea.

UNICEF is working with government and non-government actors to build the child protection system to meet the protection needs of refugee children, including strengthening child protection services and referral pathways. This includes supporting the establishment of a case management system that facilitates the provision of multi sector services. Such a system is important to respond to cases of violence including those of sexual violence. UNICEF is further working with its partners to ensure strong linkage between services in emergency and regular development settings so that each could reinforce one another making sure that children in refugee as well as development settings are protected from violence by helping put in place an effective response mechanism.

What are the challenges when it comes to birth registration in Ethiopia?

The main challenges include absence of birth registration and certification services in many hard to reach areas including pastoralist regions; lack of demand for birth certificates, in part due to a lack of awareness about the service and its importance and fees for certificates which may be a bottleneck for ‘poor’ families. In addition, the paper based registration process is not cost effective. However, efforts are commencing to transition to a digital system. More focus is also needed to address the backlog of registration than newborns.

Given the status of birth registration in the country, it is a daunting task. How are you coordinating this with the government?

UNICEF is working closely with government both FVERA and Ministry of Health to help provide the required technical and financial support to achieve the GTP II and SDG targets. In particular, linking birth registration with health service system through the health extension program is a major priority because according to the 2016 EDHS, about 74 percent births happen in the community and there are about 38,000 health extension workers that are now made responsible to notify births as per the recent proclamation.

Having birth certificate is the right of every child. How are you going to address the needs of children living in remote and pastoralist areas in this regard? Where young girls are victims of Female Genital Mutilation and young children are hindered by child marriage 

UNICEF acknowledges that reaching children in remote and pastoralist areas is a challenge. This is across most programming areas; it is not limited to our work on birth registration. UNICEF is working closely with the federal government and regional bureaus to help ensure equitable access to birth registration and certification service to all children, including those that may be the hardest to reach. This is one of the areas on which we need to strengthen our efforts as the EDHS data shows low coverage of birth registration services in regions that have highest pastoralist communities such as Afar and Somali. Currently, UNICEF is planning to conduct an implementation research in Somali region to help inform our work and approach in pastoralist areas.

One of the most significant problems in Africa and in Ethiopia is child labor. Its prevalence causes children to occupy their young age with working, making them leave Scholl and education.  Such abuse is mostly executed by close guardians or parents, as children are expected to bring income and this is accepted by the society in general. Do you think the birth registration will change this rooted problem? If so, what should be done to make a practicable progress to eradicate child labor?

The probability of unregistered children ending up in child labor is high as they are often treated as adults. According to the 2011 EDHS data, 27.4 percent of children aged 5-14 are engaged in child labor. Thus proof of age through birth registration and certification is essential to protect children from getting involved in child labor. In addition, specialized strategies such as the urban productive safely net programs are vital in preventing and mitigating vulnerability of children to child labor. 

What other projects do you have in regards to children’s right?

UNICEF is mandated by the United Nations to advocate for the protection of children’s rights, to help meet their basic needs and to expand their opportunities to reach their full potential. Therefore, child rights cuts across all our areas of work – from health to nutrition, learning and development, water and sanitation, social policy and child protection. Across all these program areas, UNICEF seeks to promote and protect children’s right to survival, development, protection, participation and legal identity. In addition, UNICEF responds in emergencies to protect the rights of children in coordination with United Nations partners and humanitarian agencies. We carry out these activities guided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

What other things do you suggest should be done to enhance the rights of children? Or what others areas need to be amended?

Investments in children are critical to enhancing children’s rights. Smart investment in the most disadvantaged and marginalized children is vital for a truly sustainable future. Strong evidence exists and continues to grow across all the areas in which we work about how investing in children’s survival and early years, as well as their middle years and period of adolescence are critical to meet their fundamental rights as well as contribute to the overall socio-economic development of the country. However, spending more money alone will not achieve development goals. Investment must also be targeted to disadvantaged children and programs that effectively close equity gaps.