Boosting birth registration in Pakistan with mobile phones

In rural communities in Pakistan, an innovative pilot project is using mobile phones to empower Lady Health Workers to register newborn children.

By A. Sami Malik
A woman holds a mobile phone, Pakistan
UNICEF Pakistan/2015/Malik
01 April 2016

THATTA DISTRICT, Sindh Province, Pakistan, April 2016 – In Nabi Bukhsh Baloch, a rural community in Pakistan’s Sindh province, the entire village has come together to celebrate its newest resident. Mai Hajiani and her husband Ameer Bukhsh have just welcomed a baby boy, Darya Khan. In rural communities like this one, the birth of a child calls for joy and celebration, with festivities sometimes continuing for days and weeks, especially if it’s a boy.

“We are very excited to have a baby boy as we already have three girls,” says Mai Hajiani. My husband has a small piece of land that he cultivates all by himself. It is hard labour for him and yet he can barely earn enough for the family to survive. When this boy grows up we will send him to school so that he gets an education and find himself a better occupation than working in the fields.”

The Lady Health Workers of Thatta

Two important guests at Mai Hajiani’s house today are the local Lady Health Worker (LHW), Lateefan Banu, and her daughter Saira. Lateefan is one of the 19 LHWs working in the Dhabeji Union Council (UC) – a local-level government unit in Pakistan that usually comprises a large village and surrounding areas. As a resident of UC Dhabeji, Lateefan serves 147 households comprising over 1,000 people. Apart from raising awareness on health, hygiene and immunization matters among pregnant and lactating mothers, one of her other important jobs is initiating the registration process for newborn and unregistered children.

Birth registration is an important and necessary step for all children in Pakistan. Without it, a child cannot obtain a birth certificate, which is required for the issuance of National Identity Cards (NIC), passports and school enrolment.

In the past, the birth registration process was notoriously cumbersome and time-consuming, so many parents opted to leave their children unregistered. Some parents were also unaware of the benefits of birth registration.

However this year, an innovative pilot project for birth registration through mobile phones, initiated by UNICEF in collaboration with local and provincial authorities, has made the entire process easy and efficient.

“This is the ninth child I am registering in this village during the last six months,” says Lateefan.

“When I started working on birth registration, people were not interested and I did not get a good response even in this village. I then met Allahdad Balooch, the newly-elected councillor and explained the benefits of birth registration and the new process of birth registration through mobile phones. He understood and promised to talk to the residents. Thanks to him, now when a child is born in the village, they invite me for lunch and request to register the child. The mind set has changed.”

A streamlined process

The initiative in Thatta District is part of larger effort to strengthen Pakistan’s birth registration system. To this end, UNICEF has been working with the Departments of Local Government and Health, the National Data Base Registration Authority (NADRA) and the mobile telecom network operator Telenor to register every child in the province of Sindh.

The new process is simple and streamlined. As soon as Lateefan finds out that a child has been born to one of her families, she visits their home and logs the details of the newborn into her phone.

 “Once I have fed the data, including the date and time of the child’s birth, parent’s names, National Identity Card (NIC) numbers and their address into my smart phone, my daughter Saira helps in taking photographs of the parents’ NICs,” she explains. “When all this is done, I transfer the data online to the Dhabeji Union Council office for verification.”

The data is delivered to a tablet belonging to the UC Secretary, Sadiq Shahani. Once his team verifies the data and approves the case, it is then uploaded into the UC office database issued a Civil Registration Management System (CRMS) number.

A woman sits with her family, Pakistan
UNICEF Pakistan/2015/Malik
Mai Hajiani sits with her family in their home.

“The LHW receives a message and informs the parents of the child that they can come to the UC office and receive the birth certificate,” he says.

When a parent of the registered child comes to the UC office to claim the birth certificate, the data is transferred to the provincial office of NADRA, and then onward to its head office as a permanent record.

“There is a nominal fee for issuance of the birth certificate but it is invaluable for the child for the rest of his life. From school enrolment to issuance of an NIC card, to obtaining a passport or finding employment, it serves as his official identity every step of the way,” says Sadiq.

So far, UNICEF’s mobile phone birth registration initiative has borne great results in Union Council Dhabeji. In 2015, 95 per cent of newborn children were registered within the first six months of their birth, compared to approximately 5 per cent in 2014.

“Timely birth registration is a ‘passport for protection’ for a child,” says Jabeen Fatima Abbas, UNICEF Child Protection Specialist. “Digitalization of the birth registration process and collaboration with various government departments, as well as with the private sector, is the way forward to achieve universal birth registration for all children in Pakistan.”