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19.04.2003 Feature Article

Am I Supposed To Register My Own Birth?

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According to a recent Ghana News Agency (GNA) report of an interview published on the Internet, the Registrar of Births & Deaths, Mr. Samuel Pedro Ankrah, is quoted as saying that “the country is now of age for people to stop referring to historical events in determining their ages”. He went further to state that “When one's birth date is registered, it helps to determine the population of the country, it helps job determination, to plan for education and it helps in crime detection''. I would like to congratulate the Registrar for telling us what under normal circumstances, should be obvious to everyone, but which unfortunately, no one seems interested in devoting sufficient attention to. At the same time however, I would also like to ask him what plans he, as the boss of the outfit responsible for registration of births, is putting in place to ensure that all births in Ghana will be registered as and when they do occur, in order to bring about the benefits he speaks about. It is common knowledge in Ghana that most people register their own births when they need a Birth Certificate. I also humbly beg to differ with the Registrar on one other statement attributed to him. He’s reported as saying: "There are people even though they have all the chances to register their birth, fail to do so and cannot state the exact date they were born and keep on referring to historical events to identify (their) dates of births". I am of the opinion that the whole idea of birth registration is bound to be meaningless (as it appears to be to date) if, as I understand from the above statement, the Registrar expects people to register their own birth. It may be all right advising people to register the deaths of their relatives, but for no less a personality than the Registrar of Births and Deaths of the whole country to advise people to register their own births, without first telling us what steps are being put in place to ensure that from now on, every new birth would be registered, gives me the impression that we are not serious about what we are supposed to be doing. In other words, we expect babies being born today to reach the age of 18 and above, or when they need a passport to travel (whichever comes first), before they go and register their birth. Registering At Birth In some countries that I know, including Switzerland, it is the responsibility of hospitals to forward particulars of all births and deaths to the local Birth & Death Registry. This way, the first time an individual may have to go to the Registry is when he/she needs a Birth Certificate, and not to register his or her own birth or even the birth of a child. I am aware though that in Ghana, unlike Switzerland, many births take place outside hospitals and maternity homes. However, I believe we can conveniently make good use of the District Assemblies in this regard in addition to health institutions. Incidentally, both the Births & Deaths Registry and the District Assemblies come under the same Ministry of Local Government. There must be a law somewhere making it mandatory for people to register births and deaths because I cannot believe that the Registry was established only on the assumption that the good people of Ghana would, on their own, make good use of it. Again, it would be absolutely naive to believe that such an important national responsibility as keeping records of all births and deaths, would achieve its desired results when its implementation is left to the goodwill of the people. Unfortunately, however, I’m also well aware that in Ghana there are many laws which were made apparently without the least intention or desire of ever being enforced. It is high time we started showing more concern about this negative attitude, and make a bold attempt to change things if we ever have any expectation that we shall one day reach our set goals. Instead, for example, of fighting over who should be responsible for the issuing of the proposed National Identification Card, there can be no doubt that it will be more beneficial in the long run to ensure that every new born is registered at birth. If we start today we can be sure that by their 18th birthday, children being born today would not need any special exercise to be issued with national or voting identity cards. On the other hand, we can continue to spend all our resources to appeal to grown-ups to go and register their births so that by the time we have finished with the exercise we start another one to get those who are being born today registered. Under normal circumstances, one would have expected that the Electoral Commission could have relied on records from the Births and Deaths Registry as a first step towards compiling the voters’ register. But as it were, it became necessary to conduct a special exercise for the purpose as if the people being registered were coming from another country. The proposed national identification exercise is a welcome idea only because it is expected that once the exercise is completed people would be easily identified. But if, as it appears to be the case, there are no measures in place to prevent a 40-year old Kwadwo Addae from obtaining an I.D. Card claiming that he’s a 30-year old Yaw Mensah, can we afford to leave things as they are so that 20 years from now, the situation would still remain the same? Again, if at the end of it all, it becomes as easy for people of all nationalities to acquire national Identity Cards as Ghanaians the way they can now acquire passports, of what use would the exercise be? But I have a strong feeling that unless all necessary steps are taken to ensure that all births (and deaths) are registered as and when they occur, so will the situation ever remain. Design of The Birth Certificate To start with, there is the need to completely re-design our Birth Certificate to bring it abreast with time. In this ‘digital’ information age where personal information has to be as precise as it possibly can, it is absolutely essential that Surnames be separated from First/Other Names of the child as well as the parents. The explanation on the Certificate stating: "Name in Full (giving Christian name first and surname last)" does not make any difference since many people have more than just ONE surname. Again, in a multi-religious society as ours, I do not find “Christian Name” to be appropriate on a document which is meant for people of all faiths and religions. It is to say the least, discriminatory and unfair to non-Christians, and an indication of how we seem to cherish our colonial past. In my particular case, I'm wondering if anyone considers "Kwame" to be my Christian name. I’m also not quite sure of the relevance of a parent’s ‘Profession’ on a Birth Certificate. Rather, perhaps, to make the data even more reliable, it may be more useful to indicate the District and Region of a person’s Place of Birth. This may be the only way to ensure that someone born at Koforidua, the Eastern Regional capital would not be confused with others born in any of the other Koforiduas in Ashanti and Brong-Ahafo Regions. Finally, I also believe that as part of the decentralisation programme, as well as to improve efficiency, Birth Certificates should be issued at District Headquarters in a one-stop procedure instead of the present situation where each one of them has to be signed by the Registrar in Accra. We cannot pretend not to know that not all of those whose Birth Certificates indicate that they were born in Accra and Kumasi were actually born there. Faced with the prospect of applying for a Birth Certificate at Bechem in the Brong-Ahafo Region and ending the process in Accra, many people prefer to choose the relatively more convenient option of declaring they were born in Accra in order to obtain a Birth Certificate there more quickly. I cannot believe that the authorities concerned are not aware of this. One unfortunate impression no careful observer would fail to notice about Ghana is that it always takes us far too long to change things even when the need to do so is very evident. Sometimes too, even when changes are made, they don't go far enough. Our current Birth Certificate, which was introduced quite recently, is a classic example of the latter case. There are many establishments and procedures in our civil and public services which have outlived their usefulness in today's environment. There is therefore, an urgent need to completely overhaul all of them if we expect them to play the roles for which they were established. Whether we like it or not, we have to appreciate the fact that in this fast-moving, globalised world, we risk being left behind if we keep believing that somehow, we will succeed in building a sky-scraper on a foundation meant for a two-storey structure. Twumasi-Fofie, Kwame Bern, Switzerland

Kwame Twumasi-Fofie
Kwame Twumasi-Fofie, © 2003

The author has 46 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: KwameTwumasiFofie

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