When a child is born in Canada, most parents don’t think twice when they receive an official birth certificate. It’s one of those things most of us can count on happening almost automatically. But it is worth pausing and thinking about that seemingly innocuous piece of paper, the birth certificate, because it is a child’s passport to protection. Birth registration is one of the most critical ways to ensure a child is not excluded from vital services like education, health care and social services that offer children protection from harm and violence.

Every child has the right to be registered at birth without discrimination. According to UNICEF’s new report released Dec. 11, Every Child’s Birth Right: Inequities and Trends in Birth Registration, nearly 230 million children under five have never been registered. That means that one-third of all children under five in the world do not officially exist — they are invisible.

Additionally, many of those children who are registered do not have an official birth certificate, an important step to prove that the registration took place.

At UNICEF, we are shining a light on this hidden problem and these invisible children. Last year alone, we supported the registration of 29.5 million births in 80 countries and we won’t stop there because we know that birth registration is critical to giving children the best start in life. Time and time again we’ve seen that children who don’t have birth certificate cannot get the health and protection they need. It makes things harder for governments, too — they aren’t able to plan and budget accurately because they lack complete data on children.

Proof of the age of a child, provided by a birth certificate, is central to protecting children from child labour, recruitment into armed forces, child marriage and trafficking. If children are separated from their families through natural disaster, like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, or by child trafficking, reuniting them is made more complicated by the lack of official registration.

The government of Canada, a global leader in maternal, newborn and child health, has recognized the dual importance of birth registration for children’s health and safety. In Canada’s National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, birth registration is listed as one of the key interventions the government will support to prevent boys and girls from being trafficked.

Canada’s focus on maternal, newborn, and child health has also led to support for global efforts to increase birth registration rates so that we can monitor the progress we are making in saving children’s lives and ending preventable child deaths. This past summer, the Government of Canada worked with UNICEF, Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO), and the Government of Tanzania to roll out the first phase of a new national birth registration system for under-fives in Tanzania. This partnership will use mobile technology to make it easier and faster to register births. Over the next two years this will lead to a dramatic increase in birth registration rates from 5.5 per cent to 46 per cent and will then be scaled up to become the national platform for birth registration.

In September at the United Nations, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that Canada will hold an international event focused on civic registration, which includes birth registration. This will be an important opportunity to bring long overdue attention to the critical need of ensuring that all children everywhere have an official identity. The global commitment and resources needed to achieve universal birth registration will only be possible when we all recognize the value in this simple piece of paper that we in Canada take for granted: the birth certificate.