By Chioma Obinna
Imagine being alive and not being counted among the living. Imagine existing and no provision is made for you as part of the family. Imagine being trafficked across the borders and no one seems to care because your existence does not count. Imagine being a victim of human traffickers and, when you are rescued, no one can prove your identity or trace you to any country simply because your birth was not registered.
These and more are common situations facing many Nigerian children whose existence today does not count, simply because there was no record of their births. In simple term, these children have no identity and no official birth certificates. Legally, their nationality is questionable. It is common knowledge that a country without proper statistics cannot plan for the future.
Experts fear that, with the Population Reference Bureau, PRB, World Data Sheet report 2018, released recently, Nigeria’s population was among the fastest growing in millions, and that the future may be bleak for unregistered children if nothing is done to entrench universal birth and death registrations for proper national development and planning.
Sunday Vanguard reports:
Birth registration remains the first step towards recognising a child’s absolute right as a human being. Specifically, birth registration is the official recording of the birth of a child through an administrative process of the state and it is a permanent and official record of a child’s existence.
The Federal Government’s 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.
Also the Child Rights Act of 2003, in its Section 5, states: ‘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 state in this area are also identified in international conventions which have been ratified by the Nigerian government.
Sadly, however, 70 percent of the five million children born annually in Nigeria are not captured at birth.
Several reasons have been adduced for this. In Nigeria, according to the 2013 National Demographic Health Survey, NDHS, birth registration of under-five children in Nigeria is approximately 30 percent. Major reason for children not registered is either due to ignorance of parents and caregivers or the very rural communities have no knowledge of birth registration.
Also only 35 percent of births in Nigeria are delivered in a health facility, leaving the rest, about 65 percent, born at home and unregistered. Further findings by Sunday Vanguard revealed that extortion by registration officers remain a huge obstacle in the efforts by government and their partners to change the narrative.
Investigations by Sunday Vanguard revealed that mothers are shunning the exercise in some parts of the country due to the attitude of officials who demand money for registration.
A visit to some of the centres in Lagos mainland confirmed the unwholesome practice.
Mothers are forced to pay for registration according to the ages of their children. Unfortunately, these payments are not receipted.
In all the centres visited, there were no uniform prices. For instance, in some centres, mothers with babies under three months are asked to pay N300 while in other centres, zero to two years are asked to pay N1,000 while from two years to five years pay N2,000.
For instance, in some of the centres in Oshodi/Isolo Local Government Area, mothers are made to pay N1, 500 for newborns and as high as N5, 000 for children under five years.
Some mothers who spoke to Sunday Vanguard lamented the high cost of registration, insisting that birth registration was never free. They queried the free birth registration policy of the government, saying how free is free?
For instance, a mother, who simply gave her name as Bolanle, said she had no need for a birth certificate for her child as she had collected one from her church. To her, spending N1, 000 to collect birth registration for just one child was too much.
“I brought my child for immunization. I don’t have much money for an ordinary birth certificate. I came here with just N800. In 2015, when I had my first child, I paid N300.”
Another victim of extortion told Sunday Vanguard that she had to do it because she needed to keep the record of her child’s date of birth. “I have three children and I have registered all of them”, the mother added.
The story was the same in some of the other centres visited. Birth registration has become a brisk business for officials.
Birth registration is free, says NPoPC Lagos Officer
When contacted, Lagos State Head of Department, Vital Registration, National Population Commission State Population Commission, Mr. Ikechukwu Nwannukwu, said birth registration was absolutely free of charge throughout the federation and Lagos inclusive and issued to children from age zero to 18 years.
Nwannukwu, who frowned at the unwholesome act, challenged Lagosians to report such illegal act to the commission for further investigation.
According to him, birth registration is absolutely free anywhere in Nigeria and any registration officer caught collecting money from mothers will be sanctioned.
He further stated that the idea of requesting money from mothers for registration remained one of the major factors that had brought the state from being number one on birth registration to number four currently.
“I have discussed this with the State Commissioner who is outside the country right now. I am also planning a meeting with registration officers. I have warned them several times and, after this meeting, any one of them caught will be sanctioned. I don’t expect anyone of one of them to come begging. This is where the media comes in. We are appealing to the media to help in propagating the message that birth registration is free. Let people know that they have no business paying for it. I also encourage anyone with evidence to please refer such to my office. I have given you my phones numbers you are free to call me,” Nwannukwu stated.
Why birth registration is inevitable
Health watchers are of the view that Nigeria must make haste while the sun shines following its fast growing population. They fear that the fate of Nigerian children may be hanging in the balance if the situation is not arrested urgently.
A United Nations Children Fund, UNICEF, report tagged, ‘African Generation 2030’, had revealed that Nigeria, by 2050, will have additional 257 million inhabitants and that the greatest number of births in Africa takes place in Nigeria, accounting for five percent of all global births. From 2015 to 2030, the report showed that 136 million births will take place in Nigeria —19 percent of all African babies and six percent of the global total. The report also showed that Nigeria, by 2050, Nigeria alone will account for almost one-tenth of all births in the world. In absolute terms, Nigeria is projected to add, from 2031 to 2050, an additional 224 million babies (21 percent of the births in Africa and eight percent of all births in the world). According to the report, which reviewed demographic trends and its implications for global, regional and national actions to help realize the rights of all of the continent’s children in the 21st century, the number of children under five in Nigeria is projected to increase from 32 million in 2015 to 58 million by 2050. However, experts say with these projections, the key issue that requires urgent attention remains birth registration.
Unfortunately, according to the country’s birth registration dashboard, currently, only eight percent of under-five children are registered in Nigeria.
Worse still, according to an Assistant Director, National Population Commission, NpopC, Hajia Hapsatu Husaini Isiyaku, children, who are not registered, have been denied rights to basic services and identity as countries plan better for its citizens with proper statistics. Birth registration data, when correctly collected, can play an important role in the planning of a country’s economic and social development.
Benefits of birth registration
Isiyaku explained that births registration helps to secure children’s right to a nationality which would, in turn, allow them to get a passport, open a bank account, obtain credit, vote and find employment.
“It helps ensures a child’s access to basic services, including immunization, health care and school enrolment at the right age”, the official said.
Describing birth registration as a process of recording the birth of a child by the National Population Commission, she explained that birth registration is free, universal and conducted within the context of a functional civil registration system in Nigeria.
Corroborating her views, UNICEF Birth Registration Specialist, Mrs. Sharon Oladiji, explained that access of children without birth certificates to basic services was under threat and that their official ‘invisibility’ increases their vulnerability to abuse and exploitation.
According to her, birth certificate to the individual provides legal and documentary evidence to certify a person’s existence, age, parentage, birthplace and nationality.
Oladiji noted that birth certificate also enables a person’s eligibility for health care, admission into school, voting, obtaining a passport, employment, marriage, etc.
She posited that when children are properly registered, the records help to check incidences of child abuse, child trafficking, early marriages, child labour, unlawful detention, etc.
According to her, it was critical for the Nigerian child’s survival.
Oladiji, at a media roundtable organised by UNICEF, in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Information in Kano, stated that birth registration provides data on fertility and mortality disaggregated by age and gender.
“It also provides indicators for monitoring population dynamics and development goals and targets. Other benefits include; social information aging population and planning education and community planning, child and parental programs, economic information, population growth rate, aging and economic impact”, she said.
“Disaggregated population data can help – identify geographic, social, and economic and gender disparities within national boundaries,” she added. Registering the child will enable government plan, and implement basic social services (health, education, employment, etc) 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 Lack of public awareness on the importance of birth registration.”
Stakeholders are of the view that to improve registration of births, there is need to totally involve workers in all health facilities across the country while organisations like the Nigeria Immigration Services should make birth certificate from the NPopC mandatory for issuing a passport to children. They also require NPopC to come up with stringent measures to deal with officials caught extorting innocent mothers in the name of birth registration.