Wednesday, February 1, 2017

With birth registrations in hand, local families secure rights for their children

By Mariko Yamaguchi

Mao Sokheng and her children
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/MarikoYamaguchi

Kratie Province, Cambodia, December 2016 - Mao Sokheng is a 30-year-old mother of three who lives in the rural village of Beung Run, about 21 kilometers from the provincial capital. Seated on the balcony of her home while gently stroking her youngest, a four-month-old boy named Mithona, Sokheng describes how she made sure to register her two youngest children within 30 days of birth.

Sokheng adopted her oldest, Pisey, from a relative. The baby had not been registered at birth, but her new mother ensured she got the necessary paperwork by age 1. Sokheng knew Pisey would need this document for school and many other social services as she grew older. Pisey, who is now 6, just started primary school—proper registration was necessary for her enrolment.

Sokheng knew to bring her and her husband’s birth certificate when she visited the commune office to get the documents. To reach the office, which is about a 30-minute drive, she had to rent a motorbike for 5,000 Cambodian riels (about US$1.25). While this could seem like a small amount of money, for Sokheng, it was quite an investment but one that she was more than willing to make.

“Birth registration is free of charge within 30 days of delivery; afterwards, it costs 10,000 riels (US$2.50),” she states, proud to demonstrate her knowledge. “The paperwork is necessary for school enrolment and is an important form of identification for children.”

Birth certificate and related documents
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Yamaguchi

Furthermore, proper registration helps parents keep track of their children’s age and ensure they start school at the right time.

But many Cambodians don’t take the necessary steps to register their children. As of 2014, birth registration in Cambodia was about 73.3 per cent for children under 5 years old (CDHS, 2014). Most parents wait until their children approach school age to complete the process, paying the 10,000 riel ‘late’ fee that could have been avoided.

They don’t realize that birth registration is essential for all Cambodian children. It is the only legal identity a child has once they are born; it ensures they get access to education, social support and health care; it can also protect children from labour exploitation and trafficking.

Sokheng learned about the importance of birth certificates from her village chief, commune chief and the core mother group. Core mother groups in Cambodia are a vital source of accurate information, advice and reassurance for expecting and new mothers. Trained by health centre staff, they address issues including child survival, nutrition, childhood illness, women’s reproductive health, and registration. UNICEF supports these volunteers with funding from the Spanish Government through the MDG Joint Programme for Children, Food Security and Nutrition.

Awareness-raising activities held by the commune committee for women and children also play a key role in encouraging mothers like Sokheng to register. They are encouraged to complete the process within the 30-day window after birth. In Beung Run, the message is getting through: according to 2012 and 2013 data, roughly 30 per cent of newborns were registered, but this has now increased to about 80 per cent. And for those who miss the free 30-day window, they still try to register within the first year after birth.

To work toward universal birth registration, UNICEF has been working with villages like Beung Run, which is in Sambok commune, one of 74 target communes supported thanks to contributions from the Japan Committee for UNICEF. The assistance includes providing information and training for commune leaders, key agents in increasing community awareness about the importance of birth registration and its procedures. UNICEF also trains commune officials to promote the importance of registering other vital events such as marriage and deaths. Through such efforts, registration data is now regularly discussed at monthly commune council meetings, demonstrating local-level commitment to proper registration.

Mak Bunly, the village chief of Beung Run, is one of these individuals. UNICEF has worked with his commune to introduce a village record book to boost birth registration. Bunly has been using the book since April 2016 to manually record every significant event in the village: births, deaths, marriages. Bunly meets with the commune clerk monthly to review and compare the commune register book with his village record book. That way, he can identify households that have not registered, which he then visits.

The village record book also plays a role in data collection and financial planning: when health facility staff or donors ask him about newborns in his village, Bunly is able to immediately provide updated information. This helps donors and/or the Government appropriately plan for future interventions and appropriate assistance in Beung Run.

Beung Run village chief Bunly holds the village record book
©UNICEF Cambodia/2016/Yamaguchi

“Before, I didn’t know how many newborns we had in each village every month or who was registered,” Bunly says. “The village record book also strengthens collaboration with the deputy village chief and village assistant.”

Beung Run still faces challenges. Since Bunly began using the village record book in April 2016, nine new babies have been born. Of those, three have not been registered despite Bunly’s efforts.

Bunly is now considering a new strategy. Since transportation to the commune is the main obstacle for many parents, he plans to create a list of households with unregistered children and submit it to the commune office, who will then issue the birth certificates.

This method has been successful in one village in Sambok commune. Although families still have to visit the commune office to obtain the certificate, they save time and money by not having to go twice. This village has also achieved 100 per cent death certificate registration using the same method. The village chief and commune office are considering expanding this initiative to the commune’s seven other villages.

Tiv Vanny is the commune committee for women and children Focal Point and a commune councilor in Sambok. She explains that of 104 newborns this year, 78 were registered in her commune within 30 days after delivery, or 75 per cent, which is below the provincial average of 82 per cent. To address this, Vanny is closely working with core mother groups to educate mothers on birth registration and early childhood education.

Vanny has seen the difference these efforts, along with the village record book and awareness-raising activities, are making on her community. “Before, it was a big challenge to track and follow up with households with unregistered children,” she explains. “There was no way to track them and ensure their children are granted this important legal document.”  

Together, these local leaders and mothers like Sokheng are helping Cambodian children get the rights they deserve.

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