An innovative programme piloted in Tanzania’s Mbeya region uses mobile phone technology to make birth registration simple, affordable and widely accessible – an important step in getting every child off to the right start.
MBEYA, United Republic of Tanzania, January 2014 – “It’s very simple, I’ll show you,” says Adela Mwakala with a smile. In just 30 seconds, Ms. Mwakala enters the baby’s name, registration number, date of birth, mother’s name and city of residence in her mobile phone. She then sends the data via SMS to a central database in Dar es Salaam.
Ms. Mwakala is a medical technician at Meta Hospital in Mbeya, capital city of one of the most populous regions in Tanzania. “Every mother that comes to the hospital must get a birth certificate for her child. It’s my mission,” she says proudly.
The new Tanzanian citizen registered today is a one-week-old baby girl named Gloria Celestine. “Right after I gave birth, the nurse informed me that I had to get a birth certificate for my baby,” says her mother, Yovina Constantino, 18 years old. “I know it’s important. It’s needed everywhere – for my child to access education, and employment opportunities later on.”
Nothing would seem simpler than recording the name, sex, parent age and place of a child’s birth. But the evidence in Tanzania tells another story. The country has the second-lowest rate of birth registration in the Eastern and Southern African region.
Right to an identity
“From the moment a child like Gloria Celestine is born, she or he has rights, including the right to an identity. A birth certificate is one of the most important documents a child will ever own,” says Birgithe Lund-Henriksen, UNICEF Tanzania’s Chief of Child Protection. “It is evidence that the child exists and that the Government has certain obligations with regard to the child.”
As Ms. Lund-Henriksen explains, a child without a birth certificate can face many challenges later in life, such as proving his or her age in a court of law, accessing certain services like opening a bank account or getting a passport, and being able to apply for certain jobs.
“Equally important for the Government of Tanzania, without a functioning birth registration system there is no clear picture at any given time of the number of children by age in Tanzania,” she adds. “This is critical information for provision of basic social services.”
There are many reasons children do not get registered. Sometimes the costs are prohibitive or the birth registration services are too far away for families to access them. Sometimes families are simply unaware of how to register a birth, or of the importance of doing so.
“It’s very expensive to get a birth certificate for your child,” Ms. Constantino says. “That’s the reason why my own parents never got me one. Parents have to pay 3,500 shillings [about US$2.20] if they request it within 90 days of the birth of their child, and 4,000 shillings [about $2.75] if they request it after. Plus there’s the cost of traveling to the district government office to collect the document.”
In 2013, the Government of Tanzania, UNICEF, and the telecommunication company Tigo, with support from VSO International, joined hands to develop and implement an innovative mobile application to register children under 5, which simplifies the process of registration, as data is entered into a mobile phone and sent via SMS to the government agency responsible for birth registration.
The hospital has implemented a simplified birth registration process – submitting necessary information via SMS. This ensures that newborns like Gloria Celestine (above) can go home from hospital with a birth certificate.
The application is designed to work on all mobile phones and operating systems, and only requires mobile coverage to send and receive data. July 2013 marked the roll-out of the new birth registration system in Mbeya region, using the mobile application.
“Our strategy is to integrate health services and birth registration, like at Meta Hospital where Yovina gave birth to her daughter, Gloria Celestine,” explains Noela Gabriel Itunga, Assistant Registration Officer at the Registration, Insolvency and Trusteeship Agency (RITA), the government agency partnering with UNICEF and Tigo in the initiative. “This is also a service that is provided for free. It means that only a couple of days after her daughter was born, Yovina can go home with a birth certificate in hand.”
Before the start of the new birth registration strategy in Mbeya region, there were more than 383,000 children under 5 without a birth certificate – approximately 90 per cent of under‐5s. Six months later, more than 150,000 under‐5s have been registered and issued birth certificates, representing 36 per cent of children under 5.
Following the success in Mbeya, the system is scheduled to be introduced in an additional four regions, with the aim to register more than 1 million children under 5 by 2015.
This innovation has come at a time when mobile solutions are critical to ensuring Tanzania’s next generation gets the best start in life.
“I dream that my daughter one day will be well educated and able to get a good job, like being a doctor,” says Ms. Constantino. “I know I’m giving her the best chance to do so with a birth certificate.”
Photo by Sandra Bisin.
About the contributor: Sandra Bisin started her career as a free-lance print and broadcast journalist, moving later on to the corporate film production industry. She has been working with UNICEF Tanzania since August 2013 and is in charge of the Communication, Advocacy and Partnerships section. Prior to this, she worked in Viet Nam, Niger and Pakistan, also for UNICEF. From 2005 till mid-2007, Sandra worked in Sri Lanka for the World Food Programme and the German Development Cooperation (GiZ). She worked as Communication officer with the French National Committee for UNICEF in 2004-2005. A French national, Sandra holds a Masters degree in Journalism from La Sorbonne University in Paris, France.