Birth registration sets Eswatini’s children up for success

A young woman in a yellow cap and orange shirt sits by a desk holding her baby in her lap and a piece of paper in her hand toward the camera.
Nicole Ntshangase gets her son Sipholesihle a birth certificate soon after giving birth in an Eswatini hospital. Credit: Brian Clark/Pact.

It is midday when Nicole Ntshangase enters a small room off of a waiting area at a local hospital in Eswatini. She sits quietly, listening to the woman seated across the desk explain the paperwork in front of her. Ntshangase holds her baby, Sipholesihle, in her lap. Wrapped snuggly in several blue and pink blankets, he is only two days old. Ntshangase is there to complete one of the last steps before taking her newborn home from the hospital—registering Sipholesihle’s birth.

For most new parents like Ntshangase, their minds are probably filled with thoughts of milk, nappies and sleep. They are not likely thinking about their child’s future livelihood or education. But for every child across the world, birth registration is a vital step that can either set them up for future success or, if not done, be a burden on their future.

Everyone has the right to be recognized as a person before the law. This right is enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international instruments.

Without legally recognized identification, such as a birth certificate, children and adults can be denied access to services. Without proof of basic characteristics of their identity, such as a name and place and date of birth, children can be denied access to primary education and social welfare services or be forced to enter into marriage before the legal age.

The negative impacts don’t stop in childhood. As adults, they can be denied the right to vote, access to mobile money or a passport. Lack of identification also makes people more susceptible to harmful practices like human trafficking.

Registering children at birth is the first step in securing their recognition before the law, safeguarding their rights and ensuring that any violation of their rights does not go unnoticed.

Yet in Eswatini, 47% of children under five are not registered.

“We are working hard to ensure that all vital events, such as births, deaths and divorces, are registered in Eswatini.”

Russell Nxumalo, Director of Eswatini’s Civil Registration and Vital Statistics Department

A health care worker completes the necessary paperwork to help Ntshangase register her son's birth in an Eswatini hospital. Credit: Brian Clark/Pact.

In 2022, Pact began working with the Eswatini government to scale up birth registrations in the country through the USAID-funded Insika ya Kusasa project. For the past five years, Pact and our consortium of local implementing partners have supported the country’s progress toward the 95-95-95 targets and sustainable HIV epidemic control. We focused on two key groups that are most vulnerable to HIV—orphans and vulnerable children and adolescent girls and young women.

For many orphans and vulnerable children, the lack of birth registration only increases their vulnerability to HIV.

“We know that when children are not registered, it increases their vulnerabilities in many ways, from lack of access to critical services to an increased predisposition to early unintended pregnancies for girls. It compounds vulnerability and puts an additional and unnecessary burden on children,” says Nosipho Gwebu Storer, Pact Country Director in Eswatini.

Pact worked with the Ministry of Home Affair’s Civil Registration Department to design a nationwide campaign to raise awareness of the importance of birth registration and the process for registering a child’s birth. Critical messages were shared nationwide through TV and radio ads, billboards, newspaper articles, social media and more. The campaign also included community-based events where parents and caregivers could not only register a birth, but also ask questions about the process and work through their needs with government representatives. 

Leveraging the Insika project’s connections to young and expectant mothers and orphans and vulnerable children and their caregivers, the messages spread quickly. 

“Because of the relationships and trust we had built with caregivers, young people and community leaders across the country, we were able to contribute to this important government initiative,” said Storer.

A registration station located in a hospital in Mbabane, Eswatini. Credit: Brian Clark/Pact.

Registration stations were also set up in health facilities to make it easy for mothers, like Ntshangase, to register their child’s birth before going home. Eswatini currently has two facility-based registration offices, but the Civil Registration Department wants to increase that number to six or seven across the country.

According to the government, Eswatini is one of only 10 African countries with a department strategic plan to increase the number of registered vital events. This roadmap is helping the country to make continued progress, but a lot of work remains. Some of the hardest cases are when a child’s relatives are no longer living, according to Nxumalo.

“This is a generational issue in Eswatini. Grandparents aren’t registered, so they don’t register their children. Those children in turn don’t register their children. And so it continues,” said Nxumalo. “We are making progress through our system of chiefdoms. Everyone is linked to a chief in their community, which helps us confirm a child’s identity, even when one or both parents have died or their whereabouts are unknown.”

The department’s ultimate goal is providing legal identity for all, including birth registration, by 2030, which aligns with U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 16.9. Based on current progress and plans, the government believes it is possible to achieve this goal ahead of schedule, by 2028.

With support from the Insika project, an additional 4,264 children’s births have been registered.

For children like Sipholesihle, they are now free from the burden and challenges that come with not being registered. With a simple piece of paper, they have one of the most important forms of protection a parent or caregiver can give them.