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Mountain roads and makeshift homes: Where ‘The Right Start’ began

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As the seatbelt light flashed and we made our descent into Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa Bole Airport, it struck me that The Right Start was no ordinary marketing campaign. The following 13 days would take us to one of the remotest parts of the African continent, and then on to one of Lebanon’s sprawling, ever-expanding refugee settlements.

We were travelling to meet mothers and fathers as we so often do in our business, but baby care products weren’t top of the agenda. Instead, we were there to shine a spotlight on a hugely-troubling issue faced by millions of parents: unregistered births.

For me, this was a personal trip as much as it was business.

As the Marketing Manager for JOHNSON’S® Baby Toiletries, my day-to-day requires me to view most tasks through a commercial lens. The Right Start was a different requirement entirely, which is why it sparked such passion in me. For a brand like JOHNSON’S® Baby that is so invested in communities, I see it as our duty to improve the wellbeing of people however we can – beyond the products we bottle. The Right Start allows us to do so by making an intangible and lasting difference to the lives of families, babies, and the generations that will follow.

Now, we could finally hear how.

The morning after we arrived and met our campaign partners, Save the Children, we nudged our trucks out of the city streets towards the village of Shawura Kebl, to meet the families of undocumented children. The six-and-a-half-hour journey from the capital made it apparent why 82 percent of parents living in remote areas of Ethiopia cannot access registration programs, and therefore obtain a birth certificate for their babies. The village was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the nearest registration center, and the route itself tested our rugged vehicles around mountain edges, over rivers, and along dusty, potted roads. What greeted us on arrival was an unfamiliar but not unexpected scene - no electricity, no irrigation, and rudimentary dwellings.

After months of planning and hours of travel, it was time to hear firsthand just how damaging the issue of unregistered births is to babies in this region - ninety-one million babies, to be exact.

A warm welcome

Smiling young faces followed us through Shawura Kebl, and every family we met warmly invited us into their homes and offered us food, despite not having much themselves. Such positivity and optimism was a theme that followed us throughout our visit.

The first mother we met, Liya, made the reality of not possessing a birth certificate starkly clear. Her eldest child, Sam, had missed a number of crucial early years of school because he had no birth certificate to prove his age. Unregistered children are given schooling in Ethiopia, but only once their age can be loosely determined through physical attributes, like height. The consequences could have been far worse for Liya.  Another mother we met, Tarekech, explained her fears for her daughter. If she were to be abducted and forced into marriage, Tarekech cannot argue her case in front of the law without proof of her child’s birth date and age. Such hopelessness is a feeling many mothers could never imagine.

Fears and experiences like these were echoed once we reached Lebanon. After five days in Ethiopia, we flew into Beirut and made the one-and-a-half -hour drive to a refugee settlement in the east of the country. Where distance and transport were the barriers to documentation in Ethiopia, registration programs simply do not exist in Lebanon’s settlements. Although the hardships facing each refugee family here are multiple, unregistered births seemed to be one of the most pressing.

For the parents with whom we spoke here, the most troubling consequence of a lack of documentation was how it had torn opportunities away from their children. Education, healthcare, legal rights – all are jeopardized when a child grows up without a birth certificate. Each of the families with whom we spoke recognized this, but what touched me the most – in Lebanon as in Ethiopia - was the positivity and optimism parents still held in the face of such shortfalls.

That’s because they saw what we all saw on the ground – intelligent, energetic, ambitious children, who through no fault of their own have been hamstrung by circumstance. One father in the settlement, Ali, asked his young daughter what she wanted to be when she grew up. “A doctor”, came her reply. Another mother, Layla, told us with tearful eyes how she yearns to return to her home in Syria when it’s safe to do so, but cannot take her children with her unless she can obtain birth certificates for them. And out on the makeshift playgrounds where children ran with kites and carried self-built toys, we spoke to the kids themselves. We spoke to future astronauts, dressmakers, and asked one boy what he wanted to be when he grew up. “A pilot”, he replied. When we enquired why, he responded: “So I can fly back home”.

The sad reality is that many of these ambitions cannot be realized without a document that so many of us take for granted. Do you know where your birth certificate is right now? I can’t say I do, but I know it exists. When not registered, children do not have the right to the most basic needs and protection. In the most severe situations, children who are invisible to the law often grow up on the fringes of society where displacement, a lack of prospects, and vulnerability to crime sets them on a troubled path with few avenues of escape. That’s why The Right Start exists.

Through our initiative, JOHNSON’S® Baby and Save the Children are working shoulder to shoulder to close the registration gap and change the course of young lives. We’re doing so by providing staff from key governmental organizations in Ethiopia with training and workshops, so they’re empowered to drive registrations themselves. In addition, in Ethiopia, funding from JOHNSON’S® Baby will allow Save the Children to mobilize relevant stakeholders in order to launch birth registration services in new areas. And in Lebanon, we’ll actively support Save the Children in guiding parents through the process of registering their child, while also referring them to legal services in more complex situations.

JOHNSON’S® Baby has made it our purpose to create a world where every baby thrives, and that sometimes means more than putting our bottles and products on shelves and in the hands of consumers. What we ultimately care about is creating a gentler world for both parents and babies alike, through everything we do and everything we offer. Sometimes it takes a small but powerful piece of paper to make the biggest difference – one that gives them the right start in life.

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