The legal right to a name and a registered birth is a central principle of modern human rights law. Birth registration is often identified as a "gateway right." It is a necessary precursor for accessing political, economic, and social rights, including access to health care and education as well as protection from child labor, trafficking, and under-age marriage. However, the majority of children born in the developing world are never legally registered. The current project explores the factors that contribute to the low rates of birth registration as well as the cultural, social, and historical significance attributed to registering births in such locations. The research involves household surveys, semi-structured interviews, participant observation of birth registration activities, and archival research in Tanzania and England.

Public health and human rights campaigners have proposed that improving birth registration rates is one key means to improving health and development outcomes across the developing world. The results of the current research could offer insights into the continued presence of low birth registration rates in many developing countries.

Project Report

This study investigated the issue of birth registration in Tanzania, where only sixteen percent of children have birth certificates. Birth registration is a basic human right, established by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990. However, nearly half of children born in the developing world are not registered. Why is birth registration an important issue? A birth certificate provides legal proof of age and identity, and may assist in accessing health and education services, claiming inheritance rights, or seeking protection from human rights abuses such as child labor and child marriage. A birth certificate is required to seek many other forms of identification, such as a passport, national identity card, voter registration card, or driver's license. Birth registration is also an important source of data which can be used to plan and improve health, education, and social services. This research sought to answer two research questions, using both historical and anthropological research methods: 1)why are rates of birth registration in Tanzania so low, and 2) what can be done to improve the situation? During the first part of the study, the researcher spent five months studying the history of birth registration using historical archives and research libraries in England and Tanzania, including the British National Archives, the Tanzania National Archives, the Wellcome Library, the London School of Economics Library, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Library. The purpose of this extensive archival research was to document the history of the practice of birth registration, how it was used in Tanzania to govern local people during the period of British colonial rule, and how it related to the provision of health and education services for children during the colonial era. During the second part of the study, the researcher spent seven months conducting anthropological research in the city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Parents and grandparents in 154 households in three low-income neighborhoods participated in a household survey, during which they answered questions about whether their children had birth certificates, and the factors influencing their ability and intention to register births, as well as a wide variety of demographic and socio-economic questions. Analysis of the responses to these surveys finds that the majority of parents and grandparents are aware of the benefits of birth registration and consider it an important right for children. However, they face many barriers to obtaining birth certificates, including high fees, a confusing and sometimes corrupt government bureaucracy, an overburdened health system, long travel and waiting times, and immediate competing needs for scarce household resources. The researcher also interviewed Tanzanian government officials involved with birth registration, and was briefed on the government's plans to improve birth registration services in the future. The key finding of this research is that birth registration is fundamentally important in securing economic and educational opportunities for children later in life, and that lack of a birth certificate exacerbates inequalities over time, negatively impacting life trajectories. These findings may also be relevant to other developing countries with low rates of birth registration. Several products will result from this award by the end of 2014, including a completed PhD dissertation, several academic journal articles, two presentations at national academic conferences (the American Anthropological Association and the American Public Health Association), and a data set of the 154 household surveys which will be stored and made accessible to the public through the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research at the University of Michigan. Research findings will also be shared with non-academic audiences, including organizations that promote birth registration in developing countries, and officials of the Tanzanian government responsible for improving birth registration. The findings of this research on birth registration in Tanzania will be of interest and value to American taxpayers because birth registration is an important issue for international development. Better birth registration may help to facilitate economic growth in Tanzania and other developing countries. Improving national identity systems, which include birth registration as a first step, is also important for the national security of Tanzania and other developing countries, and for the promotion of democracy through more accurate and accessible vote registration. Therefore, using social science research to better understand the problem of birth registration in Tanzania contributes to U.S. Government goals of promoting economic development, security, and democracy in the developing world.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
Standard Grant (Standard)
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Susan Sterett
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New York University
New York
United States
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