A Certificate to Life

A birth certificate is just a small piece of paper, but for 7-year-old Johnson and thousands of other children in rural Tanzania, it is their ticket to education, health care, inheritance rights, and much more. Johnson’s stepmother learned about the importance of registering him when a Tujikomboe Group volunteer with a loud speaker visited the market where she works as a food vendor.

Johnson, an orphan and a first grader, says he is “schooling hard” to achieve his dream of becoming a policeman.

When he’s old enough to enter the police academy, the lack of a birth certificate won’t stand in his way, his stepmother told Tujikomboe staff after she completed his registration.

The Tujikomboe Group, a Firelight grantee-partner, was formed in 2004 by seven concerned citizens in Tanzania’s Kilosa District. The founders were looking for ways to address the growing hardships they witnessed—a result of high rates of HIV/AIDS infections and poverty.

Loosely translated, “Tujikomboe” means “learn and prosper.” HIV/AIDS prevention and education access were the group’s initial priorities.

They worked with local schools to train 234 peer educators on HIV/AIDS prevention. They also opened up a youth-friendly center so that young people had a place to learn about HIV/AIDS and reproductive health.

Troubled by instances of orphans without birth certificates left destitute because they were unable to claim their parents’ property, Tujikomboe staff conducted a local survey to determine the extent of the problem. They found that more than three out of four children in the area lacked birth certificates and risked the same fate.

Targeting Poor and Excluded Children

“Children who are not registered are, almost inevitably, the children of the poor and excluded,” says Shamsi Mhina, a Tujikomboe founder. “Lack of registration exacerbates their poverty by making it harder for them to access essential services and to realize their basic rights. While birth registration does not of itself guarantee education, health, protection, and participation; its absence can put these fundamental rights beyond the reach of those already on the margins of society.”

With support from Firelight Foundation, Tujikomboe launched a campaign to register local children by speaking in churches and schools. They used drama and loudspeakers at community gatherings to share their message.

They emphasized that a birth certificate can ensure that children have access to health care and education, and also help protect children from forced early marriage, exploitive child labor, and under-age military conscription.

Firelight supported the development of an educational guide on the birth registration process that Tujikomboe staff prepared and distributed. Local radio and newspapers covered the campaign.

To make the logistics of submitting the paperwork easier for parents and caregivers, the group worked with government officials and pioneered the first mobile birth registration sites ever deployed in more remote villages. Parents and caregivers were able to register children without making day-long trips to a regional government office.

Over two years, nearly 1,400 older children were registered as a direct result of Tujikomboe’s campaign. Now birth registration is a common practice for parents of newborns in Kilosa District, according to Mhina.

Equally important, Tujikomboe’s mobile birth registration is now considered a “best practice and is being copied by the government and other agencies throughout the country,” he reports.

Despite Tujikomboe’s small size—they operate with two paid staff, 19 volunteers, and a budget of $25,000—they have had a tremendous impact in their district.

Grassroots ‘Action Research’ Contributes to Effectiveness

Puzzled by low participation in one of the wards they targeted, Tujikomboe staff visited households to investigate further. Parents and guardians told them they understood the importance of registration and were willing to do it, but lacked the money to pay the small registration fee. Most caregivers, they learned, were low-paid laborers with an average of 3 to 5 children in the household in need of registration.

Using their government connections, Tujikomboe is now advocating that birth registration be offered free of charge throughout Tanzania. The government “provides voter registration cards for free, so why not birth certificates as well?” argues Mhina.

Tujikomboe’s use of ‘action research’ to inform their work is a distinctive feature.

“Tujikomboe is engaged in a process of ongoing assessment, seeking to understand why they achieved particular results and why they did not achieve others,” says Zanele Sibanda Knight of the Firelight Foundation. “They take appropriate steps to adjust their strategy based on what they learn. At Firelight, we refer to this as a reflection and adaptation process. We have found, over the years, that organizations that take such an approach have greater effectiveness and impact,” she points out.

Building on the success of the birth registration drive, Tujikomboe has established a legal aid clinic in partnership with another local community organization. By training community members on how to help parents write wills, they are addressing another crucial need orphans have when their parents die.

“Government officials and international policymakers tend to be wary of working with community-based organizations, concerned that they lack the capacity to implement effective programs,” says Sibanda Knight.

“Small organizations like Tujikomboe should not be discounted in discussions on strategies to provide for and protect children affected by HIV/AIDS, because they are often the ones that facilitate the provision of essential services to the most remote communities. Tujikomboe’s efforts to ensure that children have birth certificates and that their parents write wills, help make a critical difference in children’s lives.”