I recently reached a milestone birthday, one that I have looked forward to my entire life -- my "sweet sixteen." With that number applied to my age, I received benefits in addition to birthday presents. I can now get my driver's license, work out in my local gym without adult supervision, volunteer in my city's animal shelter as a youth intern, and I am only two years away from being able to vote and becoming an "adult."
A whole new arena of activities and independence has opened up to me just by reaching a day and attaching a new number to my person. It almost seems frivolous, the difference an age on paper can make. But around the world, girls of any age are not able to claim their rights and benefits, even to prove that they exist -- because on paper, they don't.
On October 31, the Girls Count Act of 2013 (H. R. 3398) was introduced to the House of Representatives. Authored by Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio's 1st District, this act doesn't ask for millions of dollars to be directed toward a certain industry, nor does it have a political leaning toward one side of the aisle or the other. The Girls Count Act is a statement that the United States will proactively support every child's right to receive legal and social benefits through registration at birth.
Every year, approximately 51 million children under the age of five are not registered at birth, a disproportionate number of whom are girls. Most countries do have laws requiring that children receive a birth certificate and are registered with the government, but for a variety of reasons many families never report the births of their children. Those reasons include the cost of registration, the distance to registration offices, the view that registration is just a legal formality, and just lack of knowledge that children are supposed to be registered.
Birth registration may seem meaningless to many -- just a way for the government to know the exact population of it's country and have a name down on paper. However, organizations like Girl Up have found that registration is a vital component of allowing every child -- especially every girl -- to maintain their rights. Official recognition by the government means that as children grow up, they can get their drivers licenses, they can go to a government-run school, they can receive health care if their country has any, and they can receive a passport in order to leave the country -- basically all the things that a citizen should be able to have.
But beyond that basic level, the consequences of not having a birth date can be grave. Girls in particular face issues such as child marriage and domestic slavery. Without proof of their birth date, girls can't do anything to protect themselves from being married to someone sometimes four times their age when they are still children. Governments can't prosecute people for taking children on as underage labor when they have no idea how old a child really is. Injustices such as these keep children from being children and keep girls out of school, often ruining lives. All of this can be stopped with just a basic number assigned to a child's name saying how old they are.
Other numbers that make a difference are the ones that are important to America and other countries all over the world. When governments officially recognize and document their citizens, better information can be collected on what communities need, such as better health care, more security and more schools. And when those needs are being counted, organizations both locally and around the world can take part in making sure that what children and communities are lacking can be supplied. The collection and record-keeping of every individual person gives them a voice and shows that they matter. The world can be changed by just a few more numbers being reported.
As a Teen Advisor for the Girl Up campaign, the rights and livelihoods of girls and children around the world are extremely relevant to me, and I know that everyone can make a difference. In this time of partisan divisions and government shutdowns, Congress needs a "win." Our government needs to come together on this issue of international policy and show that the United States supports the right of every girl on earth to be registered and go on to live a successful life. Tell your representative to co-sponsor the Girls Count Act of 2013 and proclaim that numbers count, and so do girls.