Civil registrars from 13 countries gathered in Uganda seeking solutions to improve birth registration across the continent.
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By Kun Li
Over half of sub-Saharan children do not have birth certificates, limiting their access to basic social services like health care and school. A gathering of 13 countries to study current trends showed that technological innovations are important, but only part of the solution.
KAMPALA, Uganda, 16 October 2013 – Registering births and deaths is a basic function of any national government, because it helps ensure fundamental rights of citizens and provides important statistical data. But today more than half of all sub-Saharan African children are not registered at birth.
Reforming outdated civil registration systems has become an issue that many African governments can no longer ignore – but how can countries move ahead when their systems are broken? Does technology hold the key? And how can the registration process better reach all levels of society?
With these questions in mind, representatives of 13 countries recently gathered in Uganda to share experiences, to learn from each other and to draw inspiration from an ambitious project using mobile technology to record births in Uganda.
Delegates at the conference. The forum enabled attendees to learn from each other by sharing successes as well as challenges their countries face.
Among the participants in the week-long study tour were national registrars, statisticians and health officials from Angola, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, along with counterparts from India and experts from partner organizations. The event was hosted by the Uganda Registration Services Bureau, with support from the European Union and UNICEF.
A learning opportunity
Amid presentations and group exercises, a day of field trips took participants out of conference rooms and into hospitals and remote villages, where the delegates saw firsthand how technology has brought efficiency and effectiveness to Uganda’s civil registration systems.
“With new technologies, Africa can leapfrog in a much shorter span of time and achieve the same that other countries have already achieved, but with centuries of investments in this area,” said Pali Lehohla, South Africa’s Statistics Director.
Another participant, Dieh Mandiaye Ba, Senegal’s Head of Centre National de l’Etat-Civil, pointed to his country’s biggest challenges: security in civil registration, collection and storage of data, and ensuring complete coverage of registration. “We are hoping that learning opportunities like this will help us develop a strategy to address all of them,” she said.
Registration on the spot
Unlike some African countries where birth registration is disconnected from health services, Uganda has placed registration services right in hospitals – in maternity wards and paediatric wards – so that mothers can register their children’s births immediately after delivery, or when they come back to have immunization or health check-ups for their children. Records are then transferred to a web-based application linked to a government database. After verification by a hospital administrative officer, an official birth certificate is printed, all within minutes.
A woman displays her infant’s birth certificate, which was just generated through the Mobile Vital Record System, at Mulago Hospital in Uganda. Without a birth certificate, a child’s access to basic social services remains limited.
The group also learned about the Mobile Vital Record System, developed with the help of UNICEF and Uganda Telecom, which enables communities to register births. Even in a remote village, a mother can simply report a birth to a local government notifier, who then enters the information via mobile phone to the central database. When he goes to the village to verify the birth, the notifier doesn’t need to carry log books, but simply his mobile. If he needs to make revisions, he can retrieve the record in the phone and edit it on the spot.
“We used to do handwritten birth certificates, but these days, everything is computerized,” said Joel Sebakije, a parish chief and notifier in Kiyuni sub-county. “Now our parish is also growing. To register all 20 villages, we would need three books in a month in the past. But with mobile phones, we no longer need to go around with the books. Also, the villages are always happy when I show them their records in the phone.”
Capturing every birth
For the participants, Uganda’s experience with technology opened their eyes to new possibilities, but they were also reminded of something more fundamental: An inclusive, robust system must come first for the technology to thrive.
“[Uganda] managed to overcome many barriers in the field of civil registration and vital statistics, and they have done it relatively well,” said Carla Guilaze, Mozambique’s Director of Registry and Notary. “Why? Because they are able to capture, at the base, every birth that occurs.”
“From what we have seen in Uganda, innovative and technological solutions can help us leapfrog progress in civil registration, especially in remote areas,” said Cornelius Williams, UNICEF Regional Child Protection Advisor for Eastern and Southern Africa, who noted that South-South exchanges such as this one help participants realize that many challenges they face are also shared by others.
“We are delighted with the experience we have had in Uganda,” said Garba Musa Rano, Deputy Director of Vital Registration in Nigeria. “We will go home and continue our collaboration with our colleagues in Uganda and UNICEF to make our system work better. We have a lot to do, a long way to go, especially on political advocacy, but we will get there.”