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When there are no records of women and girls: the ripple effect

May 23, 2019

Irina Dincu

Senior Program Specialist

Nomthandazo Malambo

Program Officer, Knowledge and Translation, IDRC

Birth, marriage, and death certificates are an essential gateway to rights and public services, but according to UNICEF, only one-quarter of the world’s population live in countries that register most births and deaths.

Despite significant investments in civil registration in recent years, few low and middle-income countries have a well-functioning system that can generate vital statistics at the standards established by the United Nations. Their limited capacity and infrastructure make them reliant on surveys for their data, which can be inaccurate and tend to reflect the past.  

The quality of a country’s vital statistics has a bearing on women and girls, who are more vulnerable to poverty, early marriage, and exploitation. Without an effective civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) system, many women cannot gain access to social protection, healthcare, or economic and social opportunities. These negative effects of being unregistered can extend to a woman’s children, who often depend on their mother for access to healthcare, education, and protection. For example, a 2013 study in the Dominican Republic found that children are 32% more likely to be unregistered if their mother does not have legal identification.

Even where registration services are available, women and girls have more difficulties in accessing them. This may be due to legal, financial, and cultural barriers, as well as gender biases within the CRVS system. It is a harsh reality that those who could benefit most from birth, marriage, and death certificates are the least likely to receive them.

The connection between birth, marriage, and death registration

Birth, marriage, and death registration are interdependent: if one is missing, it is more difficult to access the other. This snowball effect makes women more vulnerable, which only heightens the barriers that prevent them from registering their life events. It is a vicious cycle that can pervade their lives and those of their children. 

Consider, for example, a woman living in a remote area who is recently widowed, but who can’t afford to travel to declare her husband’s death. Without the death certificate she can’t claim her inheritance, leaving her and her children in poverty. Even if she remarries, she won’t be able to register her second marriage without her first husband’s death certificate. Without a marriage certificate she can’t register the children from her second union, making it difficult for them to access healthcare and education and thereby perpetuating the cycle of disadvantage as they grow into adulthood.

Data gaps caused by missed registration

The negative effects of inaccessible registration services extend beyond individuals: they also create data gaps that prevent governments from identifying issues and planning effective, gender-sensitive policies.

For example, female deaths are less likely to be registered than male deaths in countries like China, Guinea, Morocco, and certain regions of India. This makes it difficult to assess whether certain diseases are killing more women than men.

Countries also struggle to manage changing population trends when mothers are unable to register their children. They may not know how quickly their population is growing, what percentage can work, or how many children need schools. UNICEF estimates that the births of one in four children under the age of five have never been recorded.

Women as agents of change

Women and girls gain disproportionate benefits from civil registration and they can be powerful partners in developing effective, inclusive CRVS systems.

Women are often the primary caregivers for their families, making them uniquely positioned to facilitate and advocate for CRVS. For example, they tend to have greater control over the household budget and are keen to invest in the wellbeing of their relatives.

Women also have first-hand knowledge of vital events in their families. They can provide important information, such as the symptoms and circumstances leading up to a relative’s death. Their knowledge is particularly useful in rural low-income areas, where a large proportion of births and deaths occur at home.

Countries can record more accurate, comprehensive data when they bring women into the equation. This data is key to effective policymaking, which ultimately leads to greater wellbeing for all. The inclusion of women and girls in developing CRVS systems is therefore essential — not only to achieve gender equality, but also to promote wider sustainable development.

Looking through the gender lens

The ripple effect of missed registrations touches everyone. We must put an end to it by developing and implementing CRVS systems with a gender lens to catch gender biases and break down barriers. The Centre of Excellence is helping to create the necessary tools to do this by publishing a Knowledge Brief Series on Gender and CRVS. This series sheds light on current challenges, opportunities, case studies, and solutions. It will provide crucial support to governments, partners, and advocates, helping them raise awareness, adopt good practices, and inspire action.

Watch a video about the importance of CRVS systems. 

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