Celebration: identity for a child, giving a birth certificate

Oct 10, 2017

Zione, with son Ellisha, shows completed registration form for national ID


Two-month old Ellisha Mphande is sound asleep in his mother’s traditional “chitenje”, as she waits in line for registration. He is of course oblivious to just how special this day is for both of them. Zione Amos, the mother, 23, is waiting to be registered for her national ID card while Ellisha will be registered for a birth certificate. Malawi’s national ID exercise has drawn considerable attention for a country that is one of the few countries in Africa without a national ID, but its effort to also issue birth certificates to those under 16 is a milestone with perhaps even more impact.

More than 90 percent of Malawians lack a birth certificate and therefore legal proof of their identity. For Zione and her son Ellisha, having a national ID card and a birth certificate, is a cause for celebration, giving a sense of identity and belonging. Her smile broadens as she realises the meaning for both. “It will really recognize that I am a Malawian. In the past, we had no ID, so it was like you were living in a country which is not yours.”

The lack of such an ID or a system of legal identity is in fact a key factor that has stifled Malawi’s development. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set by the UN, include goal 16.9, which states the target of providing legal identity for all globally, including birth registration by 2030. This means that having legal documentation is not only recognised but considered essential as a global development issue. 

The registration exercise now provides the framework for a legal identity in Malawi. More than nine million Malawians aged 16 and above will receive national ID cards after completion of the exercise. Birth certificates will be issued for the approximately nine million people who are below 16 years. These separate databases for identity will help form a population register.


For most Malawians, age is mostly guesswork. As applicants filled out the registration forms for a national ID card, they struggled to fill in details such as their age and birthdate. With the aid of registration officers (ROs) at the centres, they could provide information to the best of their ability. Chester Phiri, an RO officer in Mchinji district explains how he would help the applicants.

“We first asked how old is he. A person can remember that I’m 35, but he cannot know the birthdate. So, we start from how old are you, then in which month, and he says ‘It was during the cold season’, and we know in Malawi the cold season is June, July. We go little by little. We give the work of guessing to him, not us.”

The Resident Technical Advisor at Malawi’s National Registration Bureau (NRB), Dr. Ramesh Sethi, wants to eliminate the guesswork. Backed by the passage of Malawi’s National Registration Act in 2015, which makes birth registration mandatory, he looks forward to changing a culture that ignored legal identity. Birth registration in Malawi until then, was only required based on laws dating back to colonial rule in 1904, when only Europeans and Asians, who comprised no more than 1.5 percent of the population were required to comply.

“For 98 percent, it was voluntary and nobody wanted to go to get a birth certificate when there’s a fee attached to a certificate, ‘Why should I go? There’s no need! ‘ So, there are hardly any people registered here, because there was no system there,” he explains. “Now with the gazetting of this Act, we are now going to make this compulsory,” he adds. 

Until the Act was passed, Sethi estimates only 30 to 40 birth certificates were being issued daily in Malawi. Currently, 200 certificates are issued each day since passage of the Act. This is still only a fraction of the estimated 1200 births occurring daily in Malawi. 

Sethi anticipates the results of the registration will cause a surge in the size of the birth registration database in Malawi, that will also be a key for the success of the national ID system.

“With this exercise, many children will get on the database. I will analyse the database so that I can use that to print the birth certificates.”

His analysis will focus on linking children with parents so that family units can be identified, and once he is confident with those linkages, his office will issue certificates. He expects the scale to be significant. “Millions of certificates will be issued. How much it comes down depends on time it takes me to analyze and the resources available.”


The upgrading of the birth database also means vital statistics, birth and death, can be merged with the ID data for those 16 and above. The result is a population register. Most countries rely on census data for providing population data.But.Sethi explains that census data only gives a snapshot of a population every 10 years, from which projections are then made. The population register is dynamic and more accurate because it functions in real-time, reflecting changes in birth, death, and registration for the ID. Keeping up to date with changes in birth and death, are necessary for making the ID system work. Registration in Malawi will be continuous after the initial mass registration ends in December. Citizens will still be able to register in district offices for national IDs and birth certificates.

“And once you do this you’ll make a population register,” Sethi explains. “At any point of time, if these 3 things are working together you can have by and large a population register. The birth database is the feeder channel to the ID.  The sustainability of the system, the ID system will sustain only if birth and death are complete.”


Sethi also points out an added value of the birth database, arguing that an accurate birth database is more effective in making policy for social services than the national ID database.

“The ID card doesn’t link with the family. And many welfare programs are run on a family as a unit, not individuals,” For example he notes how poverty reduction uses family size as a measurement. “If you want to give poverty alleviation, every country has got its own norm. But suppose when you define the poor, the number of children in family matters.” 

He explains the family unit as a yardstick for welfare programs also extends to other policy areas. He notes that 80 percent of Malawi’s children live with their parents, which explains why policy decisions based on family units are efficient.

“Poverty alleviation, family planning. If you want to give free education and one scholarship to one person per family, you need to see how many family members there are. You can’t give scholarships to children in one family.” The same rationale applies to deciding social cash transfers, allocations of supplies such as fertilizers and sheeting for shelter, per family.


When Zione unwraps her chitenje to pose for her picture, she will also have her finger-prints taken, as the bio-metric details for her ID card. She will then give Ellisha’s biographical details, names of parents, place of birth, birth date, and sex, for the birth certificate. Ellisha’s birth certificate will join the growing list of birth certificates that Dr Sethi’s office expects to be printing in the coming year, which will confirm their legal identities as Malawians.

Each one will be assigned a unique ID number, that stays with them for the rest of their life, including an ID card to be issued when they turn 16.

“More than 500 a day, and we already have the capacity for this,” he says, when estimating the surge in registrations that will be added to Malawi’s birth database.”

He estimates that within a few years, the majority of the eight million Malawians under 16 years will have birth certificates.”

I hope in the next two years Malawi will be better than other countries,” referring to the immediate benefits of an enhanced population register. A cause for celebration and for optimism that the success of registering births and #MyMalawiID will help to spur Malawi’s development.


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