It was totally unexpected to the 11-year-old boy who does not have a permanent home or address. He earns his living by picking vegetables at the Karwan Bazar wholesale market and selling them to small traders at the kitchen market.
“This is the first important document of my life. I heard that it is extremely valuable and it will help me in future,” said Munna about his latest possession — his birth certificate.
Sharmin, another lucky girl of the same age, however, knows exactly why it is so important. “It will protect me in many difficult situations such as child marriage or trafficking,” said Sharmin who lives in Bashpotti slum in Tejgaon.
Arafat, a floating child labour at Karwan Bazar who also received a birth certificate, said this would be helpful if he ever wanted to get a driving licence. His dream however is to become a singer by participating in the Close-up 1 or Channel-I singing competition.
Like Munna, Sharmin and Arafat, around four lakh street children of the city are getting their birth certificates under a special initiative taken by Dhaka City Corporation (DCC) in cooperation with UNICEF, Plan Bangladesh and 11 other partner organisations.
Colonel Dr Md Showkat Ali, chief health officer of DCC, said the project began in last March and they have completed data entry of about 20,000 children. So far around 10,000 street children have received their birth certificates.
“Those who have conscious parents get their birth certificate easily. But these less fortunate street children are being left out as they do not have anyone to take care of it. Our aim is to include the hard-to-reach children in the system,” said Col Showkat.
The official informed that according to Births and Deaths Registration Act 2006, street children without parents or floating children without any address cannot be denied a birth certificate because of their social status.
Under the law parents are required to register the birth of their babies within 45 days.
SM Abdul Quader, project manager (birth registration) of Plan Bangladesh, explained its importance. “Without birth certificate it becomes extremely difficult to address child rights issues. Street children and child labourers are especially vulnerable,” he said.
“For children, birth certificate is a protection tool in case of child trafficking, child marriage and commercial sexual exploitation as it works as a proof of age,” he added.
“It gives them nationality and an identity. Most importantly it is the first bond between a child and the state. With its help children can demand their rights to the state.”
Field level workers of the project working closely with the street children said that collecting information about street children is extremely challenging.
“Most of the street children without parents or lost children who ended up on the streets do not know anything about their age or the place they were born. The runaway kids usually refrain from giving the right information,” pointed out Ashrafun Nahar Rainy, in-charge, Drop-in-Centre of Assistance for Slum Dwellers, one of the partner NGOs.
“Many street children who have parents are also ignorant about their birth year or date. Even their parents do not know anything. It becomes quite hard for us to gather information when the situation is like this,” she added.
Rainy also mentioned that often it becomes difficult to gain their trust in the first place. These children move from one place to another, making it hard to trace them. Unwanted newborns and lost toddlers found in the streets are the most challenging to work with.
There are certain provisions and guidelines in the Births and Deaths Registration Act 2006 regarding how information can be gathered about these children and how they can get their certificate.
Several discussion sessions are usually held with the children or with their parents to find out a significant event of the period they were born.
“It could be a flood, cyclone, election or even a football match. This is how we search for a possible age or birth month,” said Rainy.
The act also has provisions that in the case of parentless street children, officer-in-charge of local police station can apply on their behalf.
Birth registration has been made mandatory to get 16 basic services for every citizen.
A birth certificate serves as a proof of nationality and legal age verification document.
The Births and Deaths Registration Act requires a birth certificate to be used as proof of age for a number of essential services such as appointment in government, non-government and autonomous bodies, issuance of passport, driving licence, enrolment in voters’ list, land registration, trade licence, marriage registration etc.
The government has set a target to register births of every citizen (adult and newborn) by December 2008 and announced birth registrations free of charge from February 2007 to 31 December 2008. In the beginning the date was 2 July 2008.