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Public awareness campaign and improved coordination leads to local success in birth registration

UNICEF Cambodia/2011/P. Reang

Dunsay Chuol Hub village chief Chum Chhuol reviews a village map with Commune Council Clerk Man Heang.

By Putsata Reang

PREY VENG, 9 February 2011 — Yeang Khan, 33, never fully understood the importance of a birth certificate until a year ago, when she was pregnant with her third child. That’s when a stream of information about the significance of civil registration filtered through Khan’s village, Tonsay Chol Heb, a small cluster of stilted wooden homes that hug the main road just east of Prey Veng provincial town.

The information flow started with her village chief, who one day visited Khan and her neighbours to explain that their children would need birth certificates in order to attend school, to receive immunizations and, later in life, to get married, get an identification card or get a passport.

That visit was followed by another, this time a representative from the UNICEF-supported Commune Committee for Women and Children (CCWC)—an advisory committee of the Commune Council focused on integrating women’s and children’s issues into local development. The CCWC representative sat with Khan on a bamboo-slatted bed under her home, conveying the same message as the village chief.

The information flow didn’t end there. Khan turned on the TV at night to hear echoes of the village chief and CCWC representative as she watched public announcements espousing the benefits of birth certificates as a critical cornerstone to a child’s secure future and right to identity—a right secured under the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“We were told almost every day, ‘This is important,’” said Khan. “We couldn’t ignore the message.”

In September 2010, Khan gave birth to a healthy baby boy at the local health centre. She named him “Avin.” After delivery, Khan was sent home with a yellow immunization card that recorded the baby’s vital statistics, and a message from the health centre director that reiterated the voices already resonating in her mind: Get your baby registered.

Six days after Avin was born, Khan bundled the baby into a krama (a traditional Cambodian garment often used to carry babies) and travelled by motorbike to the commune council hall to obtain his birth certificate.

Avin was one of 147 babies born in Doun Koeng commune in 2010, all of whom received their birth certificates within the first month after birth. Having 100 per cent of newborns officially registered within the 30-day legal timeframe is a dramatic accomplishment for the commune. Just two years before, in 2008, only 20 per cent of newborns received their birth certificates, according to Meas Mong, deputy chief of the Doun Keong Commune Council.

Mong credits several factors that led to his commune’s success, including an effective outreach and awareness-raising campaign, mobile registration in which commune representatives visited families of newborns to register them in their homes, and improved coordination between the commune, health centres and citizens.

“Before 2008, villagers rushed to the commune in a panic when they needed a birth certificate to prove their age in order to get a job or get married,” said Man Heang, Commune Council clerk.

“We want people to understand the importance of this, and not just wait until there’s an emergency before they come and get their birth certificate,” Heang said. “They should prepare this before they need it.”

Deputy Chief Meas Mong said the CCWC and the Commune’s Women and Children Focal Point, who serves as an advisory role to the Commune Council, played an integral role in spreading the message. Without these village representatives—who are mostly women—the commune could not have achieved the same level of success.

“Back then, there was no one to spread awareness,” Meas Mong said. “As men, it would not be proper for us to ask if a woman is pregnant, but most representatives of the CCWC and the Commune Focal Points are women and women can ask these things to each other.”

With financial backing from UNICEF, representatives of the CCWC first began working in the commune in 2007, advocating for a range of women’s and children’s issues such as improved access to and quality of health care and education. They also took the lead on promoting birth registration. The representatives canvassed each village not only to conduct outreach and advocacy with families on the importance of civil registration, but to collect data on pregnant villagers. Two years later that information was then captured in each village’s social service mapping system—a UNICEF pilot initiative introduced in 2009 to help local communities identify gaps in social services, such as areas where villagers face difficulty accessing health care and education, or where villages lack access to drinking water and latrines.

In Tonsay Chol Heb, village chief Chum Chhuol keeps a meticulous logbook of demographic information on the 91 families in his village as part of the social service mapping system. He also keeps a separate book that documents information at the family level, listing the names and ages of family members, and a photograph of the head of household.

But the maps’ usage goes beyond improving social service delivery. Chhuol has turned the maps into a convenient tool to track and target new households for birth registration by using a yellow marker to highlight new marriages.

“Where there’s a new marriage, there will be babies,” Chhuol said. “So, we use this book and ask the Commune’s Women and Children Focal Point to monitor the couples who just got married and inform them.”

Information from the village level is then relayed to the commune, which carries the ultimate responsibility for ensuring every child has a birth certificate. Beyond the strong link between the commune and its villages, close coordination between the commune and the health centre adds another layer of accountability to the process.

First Deputy Meas Mong said his commune’s relationship with the health centre helped contribute to the commune’s success in birth registration. The health centre’s proximity to the commune council hall facilitates timely information exchange on newborns. And because the health centre is required to submit a monthly list of all newborn babies, the Commune Council is certain to receive a complete list of newborns—a list the commune then uses to cross-check against information of pregnant women from the villages.

Meas Mong said he was pleased to see a broad network of stakeholders working together on behalf of children. While the total number of birth certificates issued provides clear evidence of change, Mong said the most significant changes are not quantifiable. Instead, they have to do with a shift in people’s mindset and action toward civil registration. Institutionally, the commune is working more efficiently and effectively to carry out its mandate of providing social services, such as civil registration. And individually, people’s attitudes and behaviour toward civil registration have shifted from indifference to activism, in which villagers are being proactive and obtaining birth certificates as a standard practice.

“We tell the people, ‘This birth certificate is going to be important for the rest of your life,’” Mong said. “We tell them to take care of it, get it laminated, keep it in a safe place. Everything in the future depends on this paper.”

Baby Avin’s birth certificate is kept in a drawer, along with his immunization card and his family’s other important documents.

Khan is now fully aware of the importance of civil registration and has now registered everyone in her family. And the benefits will soon play out. In one year, Khan’s 5-year-old daughter will register for school, and will need to prove she meets the age requirement of 6 years old to attend.

More importantly, one day when all three of Khan’s children are grown, with families of their own, Khan and her husband will leave their home and assets to be divided among their three children—an inheritance that requires official identification, such as birth certificates.

“At first, I didn’t care about getting birth certificates,” Khan admits. “Now I know why it’s so important. I don’t want my children to face any difficulties in the future.”



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