A partnership to protect
Digital birth registration is giving children the inalienable right to identity
Thatta, Sindh - March 2018: Not all partnerships are formed on paper. In fact, some of the most informal professional companionships achieve inspiring results, especially at the grassroots level. One such partnership recently budded in Thatta, a historical district of Sindh province.
“Under usual circumstances, we would not have directly interacted with one another,” says Ali Asghar Solangi (51), local nikkah (Muslim marriage) registrar and prayer leader. “Perhaps, only for a serious problem,” adds Shabira (31), local Lady Health Worker.
Ali Asghar and Shabira, who belong to adjoining villages in Sonda union council, are both working as facilitators for a Telenor-funded project being implemented by UNICEF on digital birth registration. The initiative is aimed at increasing birth registration rates in nine targeted districts of Sindh and Punjab.
Both Asghar and Shabira are playing the additional roles of social mobilisers equipped with android mobile phones to collect children’s data for registration. They are the initiators of formal birth registration requests to the union council offices which, in turn, are the processing authorities. It is all done on a mobile phone application that is connected with a central dashboard at the district level. Varied levels of access are also provided to the taluka and the union council secretary offices.
The programme is based on a data oriented digital system with a centralised process involving mobile technology and ensuring safety of information. The idea, of course, is to pursue the goal of universal birth registration in Pakistan where currently only 34 per cent children are registered – in Sindh, the number is even lower (29 per cent). One of the most important features of the application is that no one has editing rights to any information unless it is sent back with objections to the facilitators for revision.
Both these front-end workers first came into contact when Ali Asghar was not able to make headway with a family having five unregistered children in his own village of Ahmed Solangi. Their parents, Zahida (36) and Ghulam Mustafa (39), were not ready to share any information about their children with Ali Asghar. “I never thought I would have to prove something to my own people at this age,” says Asghar. Tasked with registering every child under 18 years of age in the whole village, Asghar was afraid he will not be able to have any success at all if even the first family is not ready to cooperate.
He came to know that Shabira, a Lady Health Worker from the adjoining village of Mehrab Solangi had good terms with Zahida, the mother, who regularly sought advice from Shabira regarding the health of her children. It was this rapport that helped Shabira make Asghar’s task easier. Within a day, data for all of Ghulam Mustafa’s children – Bashira (12), Shakeela (8), Murtaza (6), Sajan (4), and Izra (2) – was being reviewed at the union council office. All of them are now registered and have also been issued birth certificates.
"I just had to remind them how not being counted will affect their children’s chances of survival."
“I told them how their children did not exist in public record,” explains Shabira with a certain joy founded on the sense of awareness. “People here have already suffered floods and rains, natural disasters that crippled their lives. I just had to remind them how not being counted will affect their children’s chances of survival.”
Making Headway on a Global Goal
Digital Birth Registration began as a pilot in 2016 in a few union councils of Sindh and Punjab. Besides UNICEF’s Child Protection team, the project also involved the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) experts. The results were remarkable – over nine out of every ten children in the targeted areas were registered by the end of the timeline. Today, the project is being implemented in three districts of Sindh – Thatta, Badin and Naushahro Feroze – and two districts in the Punjab province – Bahawalpur and Pak Pattan – with upscaling planned to cover four more districts, two in each of the aforementioned provinces.
“At the district level, we are pleased to see ownership from all fronts. We have the provincial government taking keen interest in the results; and there are the union councils who are also proactively pursuing targets,” says Aijaz Bhutto, Deputy Director, Local Government, Thatta. “Right now, we are addressing the gap by registering any child under 18. Once that is achieved, the focus will shift towards a more sustainable approach,” he adds.
Two Sides of a Coin
The term ‘NGO’ has long been common to almost every village on both side of the Indus River in Sindh. Communities know that these are organisations with resources that are meant for them. It became more complicated after the floods and torrential rains in 2010 and 2011. Today, unless the communities get tangible incentives in return, they refuse to even talk, let alone share documents or information.
"I think that is the biggest lesson I have learned from the project: begin at home."
“This was a personal battle for me,” says Ali Asghar. “So, I started with my own family.” During Ali Asghar’s struggle with Ghulam Mustafa’s family, instead of waiting for a solution he chose to lead with example by first registering his own son. “It was a good practice run with a positive outcome,” says Ali Asghar, whose son Shahnawaz (14) is now preparing for his first board exam as a grade nine student. “I think that is the biggest lesson I have learned from the project: begin at home.”
“It is a matter of awareness,” says Shabira. “But sometimes we must cash in the respect the community owes us,” she adds. People in her own village of Ahmed Solangi, for example, had always seen Shabira as an active social worker. Being approached by her for yet another of the government’s messages was perceived as an activity that could wait. “But I could not, as we must always show results in the given time,” an ambitious Shabira says with a smile. She sought Ali Asghar’s help, who was more than happy to return the favour. “A word from uncle Ali Asghar, requesting them to come to the mosque with all the required information, was often enough,” she adds.
Merely simplifying the previously cumbersome and exhaustive process of registering children is not enough to convince communities to opt for birth registration. “As a first, we are venturing to share knowledge with the communities instead of approaching them with the authority of educating them,” says Abdul Jabbar Bhatti, District Coordinator, Digital Birth Registration, Thatta. He elaborates how they engage with communities to make them aware of the benefits of birth registration. It takes some persuasion to help them understand that it is the official recording of a child’s existence. It provides the foundation for safeguarding many of a child’s civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. “Patience and consistency is the key. That is why even when the Lady Health Workers and nikkah (marriage) registrars are able to cover about 40 per cent of the district, we persevere.”
Drive for Results
The Digital Birth Registration programme is also another of UNICEF’s initiatives that presents a strong example of public-private partnership. From the provincial governments to the local governing bodies along with the private sector in the form of Telenor, UNICEF is pioneering projects with multifaceted collaboration. “There is no doubt that universal birth registration in Pakistan will be a miraculous milestone to ensure that the rights of every child in the country are protected. Especially, the right to an identity – the most fundamental right,” says Jabeen Fatima Abbas, UNICEF Child Protection Officer. “That is why we must understand the importance of establishing birth registration as a tool to acquire authentic data on children. This is, ultimately, one of the goals,” she adds. As an accurate record of age, birth registration can help prevent child labour and child marriage, and protect children from being treated as adults by the justice system. In times of disaster, undocumented children are at an even greater risk if they are separated from their parents or caregivers.
With its new country programme for the period 2018-2022, UNICEF aims to perceive child rights through the lens of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Even with a very low stipend currently, Shabira and Ali Asghar have completed registrations in their respective villages within due time. They now take birth registration as an added value everywhere they go for their primary jobs. In simpler terms, the way has been paved and milestones have been set. With an innovative approach, Pakistan is moving apace towards achieving universal birth registration by 2024.