27/11/2014 11:49 GMT | Updated 27/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Getting Everyone in the Picture: Don't Forget Girls

Imagine you're a young girl in school and you've just received the results of a tough exam you sat recently. You've done really well and you can't wait to tell your parents. So you rush home and burst through the door, full of excitement. You hurry over to your mother and father, but as soon as you find them, you know something is wrong. You can see it in their eyes. They have something to tell you so you sit down and listen. And then you find out what's going on: they've arranged for you to get married to a man twice your age because they just can't afford to look after you any more.

This is the story of Rubi from Bangladesh who saw her life turned upside down in an instant, pushed into marriage at just 15 years old. It was a horrifying situation, but rather than simply going along the path her parents had decided for her, Rubi did something courageous and remarkable: she fought back.

You see, Rubi knew the statistics. She knew that 64% of women in Bangladesh aged 20-24 got married before they were 18, which is illegal, although laws are often not followed. She also knew that getting married would mean the end of the schooling she so cherished. She'd have to drop out, leave her friends behind and focus on starting a family.

Rubi knew all of this because she had been part of a local child forum set up by Plan International and local partner organisation Shomaj Unnoyon Proshikkhan Kendro. There, she had learnt all about child marriage and her rights - never imagining that she herself would be part of the story.

The ace up her sleeve

With support from the leaders of the child forum and the chairman of her local council, Rubi was able to call on the ace up her sleeve: her birth certificate. Able to prove that she was just 15 years old, Rubi and her friends had the leeway they needed to convince her parents that this was not the right time to get married and that doing so would be illegal.

That simple piece of paper, giving Rubi the ability to prove who and how old she is, is a prime example of how birth registration can play a significant role in reducing child marriage.

Of course, birth registration alone isn't going to stop child marriage, but it is the first step towards a legal identity and recognition of a girl's relationship with the state. That recognition is what paves the way for girls and young women to access the education and freedom they need to be able to succeed in life and take control of their futures.

Having a legal identity means you can vote, get an education, sign contracts, get a job in the formal sector and protect against rights abuses like human trafficking and child marriage. Registration of births, as well as other key life events, is also vital for governments to be able to monitor and respond to issues like maternal mortality, unsafe abortion and teen pregnancy.

Basic tasks suddenly become more difficult without a form of legal identity. For girls and women, this only compounds an array of already existing issues that are pushing girls and women into the periphery.

Invisible children

Some 135 million children in Asia-Pacific have not had their births registered. While this number is split fairly evenly between male and female, we have to take into account that young girls and women already have to break down significant barriers just to be treated equally. If they are not registered, the barriers to participation become even more prominent.

Civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) - the registration and analysis of all major life events, like births, deaths and marriages - is a cross-cutting issue that compounds challenges faced by girls and young women who are already marginalised and excluded from society.

Looking at CRVS through a gender lens is crucial. Empowered girls can change the world - literally. Just one extra year of schooling means a girl will earn up to 25% more income. Yet if we don't treat CRVS as a tool for female empowerment, we do a disservice to all those girls and women who have dreams and aspirations.

The building blocks of governance

Well-functioning and trustworthy CRVS systems are the building blocks of inclusive and just societies that uphold rights, good governance and the rule of law. The weak state of CRVS systems has been described as a "scandal of invisibility" that is further excluding already marginalised groups.

The spotlight is now being placed on the invisible people of this world to give this issue the urgent attention it deserves. On November 24-28 in Bangkok, UNESCAP and partners will convene the first Ministerial Conference on CRVS in Asia and the Pacific. For the past nine months, we have been working with the United Nations and governments to develop a Regional Action Framework that will pave the way for a decade of CRVS and help us ensure that by 2024, every birth, death, marriage and other life event is registered.

It's time to get everyone in the picture, but we can't ignore the challenges already faced by girls like Rubi and the millions of others who have to make hard choices early on in life.