The birth certificate issue in Indonesia

Every child has the right to exist and have this existence recognized. Every child must get a birth certificate from the government of the country in which they live. In Indonesia, this right is not upheld. The country fails to provide birth certificates for many of its children. Yet, the birth certificate is mandatory for going to school as well as for getting an ID card or passport.

A few weeks ago, I found out about this problem, and wrote a blog post about it. Since then I have researched the issue some more. The issue is extremely interesting. It is a very destructive and powerful oppression, while looking like a minor administrative glitch. It also looks so neutral and “same system for everyone”, while actually being several kinds of discrimination at once:

1. Discrimination based on class, as a matter of information asymmetry: Well educated people who are socially established and know how the system works can get birth certificates for their children free of charge, others cannot.

2. Discrimination based on class, in a purely economical way: The above problem can easily be compensated for, as long as you or your parents have enough money – on a scale that is entirely out of reach for most of the ordinary people.

3. Discrimination based on religion: If a man and a woman start a family, they will not be allowed to marry each other if they do not belong to the same religion. And if they are not married to each other, it is often much harder for the children to get birth certificates.

4. Discrimination based on sexual orientation: Gays and lesbians are not allowed to marry. Even if they were, it wouldn’t help much, since it’s not enough to be married. For a child to be considered “legitimate”, the father and the mother need to be married to each other.

5. Discrimination of children whose parents does not have their best interests at heart, or have a very misguided idea about what those interests are. The system relies on the assumption that since the child needs a birth certificate, the parents will want to provide it. However, this is not always the case.

6. Most likely also a structural discrimination against women. The fifth discrimination above is far likelier to victimize girls than boys, for three reasons. Some people consider girls to be less valuable than boys, prefer that girls don’t get an education, and/or wish to control the physical location of “their” women.

The first four points are built into the system itself. They are challenges faced by well-meaning parents who want all their children to have a good education and so on. The system punishes the children if their parents don’t have enough knowledge, don’t have enough money, or doesn’t live in a way preferred by the government. However, the system also relies on the assumption that parents always care and always want their children to have access to education and freedom of movement. This is not always the case. Thus, the fifth point is self-evident.

As for the sixth point, I have strong indications that this is a real problem. However, I do not yet have any conclusive evidence that a systematic gender-based discrimination is actually happening. My next step will be to find more reports that have already been written on this subject, and to talk with more organizations that are already involved in the issue. No need to discover the wheel all over again.

For the future, I plan to do my own research on this subject. When I return from Indonesia to Sweden, my first big project will be my Master Thesis in Human Rights Studies. It will be on the subject of categorism. After that, I will work on a Master Thesis in Sociology while I start looking for a PhD program. The Sociology Thesis will be on the subject of birth certificates in Indonesia.

Until yesterday, I had assumed that my PhD studies would focus on categorism, on a theoretical level. The Sociology Thesis was only meant as a platform to get Swedish NGO:s involved in the birth certificate issue. Well, that and that I wanted to apply my knowledge to a specific issue. The discriminations surrounding birth certificate issue has a lot of aspects on how people are categorized, how they are made invisible rather than openly categorized, how they are treated based on this categorization or invisibility, and so on.

However, last evening the vice president of the organization I work for advised me take the birth certificate issue for my PhD studies. I think this could be a very good idea. While I plan to explore the theoretical aspects of categorism further in the future, it might work best as a secondary focus for my PhD rather than the primary one. Having a specific issue as primary focus would have many advantages.

As my final words for today, I would like to end with a quote from the newspaper Jakarta Globe. In Indonesia, all children must attend school. Nine years of education is compulsory, just like in Sweden. Yet, millions of Indonesian children are barred from entering school, on the basis that they do not have a birth certificate. So, why has the Government made having a birth certificate a requirement for being allowed to participate in school? The reason given in an interview with the newspaper is, as follows:

We push this because we need to make sure that children aged 7, for example, should immediately be sent to school. […] We want to make sure that their names are correctly spelled on their school certificates, because this is important for further education.


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