The world is facing an epidemic of 'nonexistent' children

This photo, taken in 2003, shows slave children ridding in the back of a police vehicle. Millions of such children in developing countries have no documents proving they exist.

Story highlights

  • There are about 230 million children younger than 5 whose births have never been reported
  • Rubio: Weak birth registration systems hinder access to schools and health care
  • Girls Count Act will help developing nations improve registration practices, he says

Sen. Marco Rubio represents Florida and is a candidate for the Republican nomination for president. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Like many parents, I still vividly remember the day I brought each of my four children home from the hospital.

At the time, I thought nothing of one of the basic prerequisites necessary for discharge: filling out paperwork for their birth certificates. As Americans, we take this routine step for granted, but in too many parts of the world today, it is either a nonexistent requirement or one that is not thoroughly enforced.
Marco Rubio
The resulting human catastrophe is that each year, over 50 million children -- about four out of 10 babies worldwide, mostly in developing countries -- are born without any official record of their existence.
    Overall, UNICEF estimated in 2013 that the births of nearly 230 million boys and girls younger than 5 -- or one in three children worldwide -- have never been recorded.
    This problem is especially acute for women and young girls in developing nations, where cultural norms and government policies systematically undermine women's rights. This treatment leaves their births disproportionately underreported and makes them more susceptible to human trafficking, sexual violence and other human rights abuses.
    Over time, weak birth registration systems lead children to be marginalized from society and prevent their access to schools, health care and basic services -- potentially leaving them more susceptible to radicalization.
    While the problem disproportionately affects people in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where basic government institutions are dysfunctional or nonexistent, it is also a major problem in wealthier countries such as China, where the disastrous one-child policy has driven millions of parents of baby girls to conceal their children's existence. Left unaddressed, this problem will have devastating consequences for generations to come.
    The United States, however, has the expertise and technological might to help confront this issue and make a difference in the lives of millions. By demonstrating our moral leadership and offering our assistance, we can empower the governments and entities that are committed to building a better future.
    That is why U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and I co-sponsored the Girls Count Act, which removes a significant impediment to progress that millions of children face from the moment they are born. The President signed the act into law on June 12, and now U.S. foreign assistance programs will be required to address deficiencies in birth registration systems in developing countries.
    In the U.S. political system today, we are engaged in as vigorous a debate as ever regarding America's proper role in the world. While these debates often focus on America's hard power -- the size of our military, sending U.S. soldiers abroad, our intelligence programs and presidential authority to conduct military operations -- we also have many sharp disagreements when it comes to America's soft power.
    For example, although our foreign aid budget of roughly $35 billion annually represents less than 1% of our entire federal budget, some people in both parties suggest that this is 1% too much. They say there are limits to American power and that we should spend all of that money to "nation-build at home."
    In most cases, they are wrong. It is true that our assistance programs must be made transparent and effective, but there is no doubt that U.S. foreign assistance is making a real impact in advancing our national interests and in improving the lives of the millions who receive it.
    We see it in efforts to help HIV victims in Africa get the anti-retroviral medicines they need, and in India where small investments in clean water projects are preventing disease and death through unclean drinking water.
    Now the Girls Count Act will improve birth registration practices in countries where children are significantly undercounted by expanding U.S. training and capacity-building for nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups. It will also improve reporting of information on how U.S. foreign assistance benefits girls in developing countries and require the collection of information on who benefits from our aid by age, gender, marital status and school enrollment.
    They will still face many other challenges. Many of them will be born into societies where simply being born is an impressive feat given the prevalence of disease, absence of prenatal care and lack of adequate food. For some, the deck will still be stacked against them because their economies provide no economic opportunity -- their governments are corrupt and authoritarian, and their communities are constantly ravaged by terrorism, warlords and war.
    How we choose to address these matters goes to the heart of the question about what America's role in the world should be in the 21st century, and I believe that by the end of the Obama presidency, our work will be cut out for us because of his ill-fated attempts to disengage from the world in favor of "nation-building here at home."
    While the challenges to our nation, global peace and prosperity remain serious, at the very least we can now take some positive steps toward ensuring that children are registered at birth, so that their names, existence and God-given dignity are recognized from day one.