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At a glance: Gambia

‘Progress for Children’: Simple measures produce a rise in Gambian birth registration

UNICEF Image: Gambia, Birth Registration
© UNICEF Gambia/2007/Downes-Thomas
Abdou Jatta, a public health worker at the Brikama Major Health Centre in Gambia, says the number of births registered at this health centre has sharply increased in recent years.

By Begay Downes-Thomas

Here is one in a series of stories on successful initiatives to promote healthy lives, provide quality education, combat HIV and AIDS, and protect children against abuse, exploitation and violence – all part of a special edition of ‘Progress for Children’, UNICEF’s flagship publication on advances towards the Millennium Development Goals. The report was launched on 10 December.

BRIKAMA, Gambia, 18 December 2007 — The scene is a familiar one at the Brikama Major Health Centre these days. Just south of Gambia’s capital, a group of colourfully-dressed women wait eagely in line with infants strapped to their backs, or holding toddlers by the hand. Three days a week, women come here for one important reason: to register their children’s birth.

Abdou Jatta is a public health worker who is responsible for birth registration at the centre. Three years ago, he says, very few children were registered there. Now, the crowds that now fill the courtyard are a welcome sight.

“We are very busy come Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” Mr. Jatta says. “But that is fine with me because I know that our children are being registered and taken care of.”

Birth registration helps children realize basic rights and ensures that they are given timely vaccinations and enrolled in school at the right age. It also helps governments implement policies requiring minimum ages for work, military service and marriage.

Barriers to registration

In the past, Mr. Jatta says, birth registration services were centralized, making it necessary for parents to travel to a registrar’s office that was often quite a distance from their home. Few people even knew of the importance of birth registration and those who did often found the procedure difficult, costly and time-consuming. Only about one in three births were registered nationwide. In some rural districts, registration rates were much lower, at approximately 1 in 17.

“People did not come until they needed it,” Mr. Jatta explains. “Like when they passed their Common Entrance [school examination] and needed it to enter high school or to vote. At such a late stage, we cannot even get the correct date of birth.”

In 2004, the Gambian Government and UNICEF pioneered a simple approach to reverse this trend. Birth registration was combined with basic health services such as immunization. Processes were decentralized so that all health facilities –  from major hospitals to outreach health posts – offered the service. Birth registration rates among children under age five saw a dramatic increase, moving up to 55 per cent nationally by 2006.

A demand for birth registration

The Brikama Major Health Centre now registers an average of 95 children a week. Mr. Jatta notes that instead of a lack of interest in birth registration, the major obstacle is now keeping enough birth registration materials in stock to meet the demand for the service. He often has to register children and provide them with the actual certificate at a later date, once more materials are available.

“I don’t always have an adequate supply and I end up waiting to issue certificates to parents,” Mr. Jatta says. “Most mothers come on their own, immediately after the naming ceremony, to request a birth certificate. We also have one-hour weekly radio talk shows about birth registration. I believe this has helped a lot.”



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