Opening Remarks at High-Level Panel on Gender Equality and CRVS

Delivered at High-Level Panel on Gender Equality and CRVS in Ottawa, Canada

Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to be in Ottawa to address this high-level panel on gender, Civil Registration and Vital Statistics, CRVS.

Effective CRVS systems help protect peoples' human rights. They endow citizens with a legal identity, enabling them to vote, prove land ownership, claim inheritance and have recourse to the judicial system. Effective CRVS systems are bulwarks against discrimination. They help support access to essential public services, to healthcare and education. So if we want help people to live wealthier, healthier and happier lives, improvements to CRVS systems must be a priority. They are a prerequisite to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; an agenda which explicitly includes a target on birth registration (Goal 16) and specifies universal birth and death registration as central to any effective national statistical system (Goal 17). To ensure no one is left behind, we must know they exist.

Many CRVS systems in Asia and the Pacific need fundamental overhaul. Only a handful of countries have universal registration within one year after birth, meaning key development indicators on infant and child mortality cannot be accurately calculated. Late registrations are a particularly acute problem. In Bangladesh and Nepal, four-year-old children are twice as likely to be registered than infants . Several Central Asian countries including Tajikistan and Uzbekistan also experience problems with delayed registrations in hard-to-reach areas. The situation is especially challenging in the Pacific and South Asia, with an estimated birth registration rate of 50 per cent for children under five, and with some countries reporting rates as low as 30 per cent. The South Asian figure is the second lowest of any region in the world, after Sub-Saharan Africa (56 per cent).

Producing accurate sex-disaggregated mortality statistics is a challenging task for many countries in the region where all too often the data either does not exist, or is unreliable. Only 11 out of 37 reporting countries have set targets for 2024 to achieve 100 per cent completeness of death registrations and cause of death certifications. Many countries rely primarily on household surveys to establish causes of death. This means data is often out of date and cannot be disaggregated by subgroups or geographical areas. Limited technical capacity, lack of integration and coordination within government and barriers to electronic data inter-exchange also hinder effective CRVS systems. Mobilizing adequate financial resources to ensure accurate databases are maintained is clearly essential.

CRVS systems are particularly important if we are to achieve gender equality. For effective policies to reach those furthest behind - of which women and girls are a majority - we need reliable data, disaggregated by age and sex. But gender inequality in CRVS often starts at birth, continues in marriage and old age, and persists into death. Let me give you just a few examples of how important CRVS can be.

First, gender-biased legal frameworks make it harder for women to register births. In several countries, births cannot be registered without the father or grandfather's name. Updating legal frameworks could make a huge contribution to improving registration rates.

Second, stigma surrounding births outside wedlock leads to misreporting. Older relatives of the mother, often beyond usual reproductive age, register children as their own or children may not be registered at all. This prevents a clear picture of fertility patterns which would help shape the requisite policy interventions.

Third, CRVS systems and registration are important to prevent child marriages. Birth and marriage registration are key instruments to prove the ineligibility for marriage of an underage girl.

Fourth, improved marriage and divorce registration can also reduce inequality faced by adult women. For instance, a marriage certificate provides women with evidence to substantiate a claim on an inheritance in the event of a spouse's death.

Fifth, female deaths are consistently underreported. Increasing death registrations could support governments' ability to identify sex-differentiated causes of death, and develop targeted policies to mitigate them.

But if the challenges are considerable, so are the efforts of many Asia-Pacific countries to strengthen their CRVS systems. Let me mention just a few.

ASEAN is pursuing an initiative to promote universal birth registration, prevent statelessness and improve the recognition of basic rights - including for vulnerable groups such as asylum-seekers and refugees. National legal frameworks are being reviewed to ensure registration and citizenship is equally accessible, independent of gender in eight countries in South East Asia.

Action in the Republic of Korea highlights how vital statistics, based on civil registration, can be used to inform a debate and encourage change. In the 1990s, the national sex ratio at birth reached a record high: 116 males were being born to 100 females due to sex-selective abortions. A public outcry ensued, policies were adjusted, and the trend has been reversed over the past ten years.

At a regional level, in 2014 countries declared the Asian and Pacific Civil Registration and Vital Statistics Decade 2015-2024. Several of you were present and I am pleased to see the momentum has been maintained. By 2024 our ambition is to achieve universal registration of births, deaths and other vital events; provide all people with legal proof of identity; and use these registration records to produce and openly share accurate, complete and timely vital statistics.

The Regional Action Framework on CRVS in Asia and the Pacific is now being reflected in global initiatives as well as in national development plans. Most countries in our region are establishing national CRVS coordination mechanisms, assessing their current systems and establishing comprehensive and multisectoral strategies for improvements. Countries have also set ambitious targets for improving birth and death registration during the CRVS Decade. For registration of children under 5, Bangladesh stood at 25 per cent in 2014 but has set a target of 100 per cent by 2024. For Myanmar, the 2014 baseline was 26 per cent and the 2024 target is 90 per cent. ESCAP is currently supporting countries to develop vital statistics reports based on civil registration records for the very first time. These reports provide a valuable source of data on fertility, maternal mortality and other key gender indicators.

The commitments made in Asia and the Pacific place the region in a unique position, with countries and partners working together towards agreed goals with a framework for monitoring progress. Asia and the Pacific must no longer be a region where we have turn to ad hoc surveys as the primary source of critical development information. Rather we must build the systems which allow us to collect and collate timely data, for real statistics.

This is our focus because good datasets are not just about numbers - they are about changing policies and mind-sets to get every woman and girl in the picture, to give them a legal identity, human rights and a voice. Working together, we can build greater political support and share best practice on CRVS systems innovations. We have a historic opportunity to make a major contribution to gender equality by improving CRVS and ensuring everyone counts. That is an opportunity, which together, we must seize.