The birth of a child within the territory of Pakistan does not, automatically, vest legal identity or citizenship in the newly born. As in other jurisdictions, the law lays down the modalities for the registration of births and the ascription of legal identity to a child. What is alarming, rather, is that only 34% of children under the age of five in Pakistan are registered (Unicef Birth registration report 2013-2015). The state then has no record of nearly 10 million children under the age of five born in our country. This is problematic on various counts.
The failure by the state to provide legal identity to those born in its territory is in itself a violation of fundamental rights. Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, which Pakistan has ratified, provides each child the right to be registered at birth, and to acquire a nationality. Our National Child Policy, too, recognises that “[e]very child has a right to life, liberty, a name and to acquire a nationality.” The denial of this right to legal recognition, perniciously feeds into a vicious cycle of rejection and exclusion of a child from other guaranteed rights, protections and benefits. The absence of a birth certificate, in several cases, means the denial of an education and inaccessibility to free healthcare, which then come to have a direct bearing on a child’s future economic prospects and the quality of his life. An unregistered child is also more vulnerable to coercion and exploitation. Without proof of age, a child may be denied the minimum protections provided under our law against child labour and, as seen in several cases, against child marriages. The absence of such proof can also lead to travesties of justice as seen in the case of Shafqat Hussain, who was hanged to death for a crime he committed when he was arguably a minor.
Given the attendant consequences of the failure to register births, why then does the existing gap in registration persist?
Poverty and illiteracy have a direct relation to the incidence/rate of unregistered births. Unregistered children are in most cases the children of poor and uneducated parents, unaware of the imperative of registration, and the consequences that failure to do so may entail. Non-registration of births is then a problem of lack of awareness. It is also a problem of accessibility. Unregistered births are higher in rural areas, where access to the administrative machinery responsible for registration of childbirths is more cumbersome or nearly impossible. The fact that nearly 50% of births in Pakistan take place at home compounds this problem of accessibility. The administrative machinery entrusted with the task of birth registration is also faulty. The local government offices, responsible for registering births, lack the capacity to one, reach out to areas, where the incidence of unregistered births is most severe, and two, to handle the technicalities of the birth registration process. The system also de-incentivises late registration. The requirement of age verification by medical superintendents, at often ill-equipped and under-staffed government hospitals, means that many individuals, who apply for late birth registration, are, for no fault of their own, unable to secure the necessary documentation for registration.
The state must intervene to close the gap in birth registration. The introduction of a scheme of penalties for non-registration can only go so far in stemming the problem. The state must initiate effective and far-reaching awareness campaigns emphasising the necessity of birth registration and the processes it entails. Technological innovations, and effective coordination and partnerships between relevant departments can also help provide a helpful solution to problems of access and capacity. The governments of Punjab and Sindh have already partnered with mobile-service providers in selected districts to initiate programmes for training female health workers to record childbirths through an online application on a mobile phone, which is upon completion transmitted to the relevant union council. Such initiatives must be further explored and extended to other areas. The state must also focus its energies on the capacity-building of union councils by providing training to its staff, and allocating sufficient resources to enable them to effectively execute their responsibilities. Such interventions are necessary both from a rights-based and a policy planning perspective.