Giving Children A New Lease of Life

Text by Susan Tam
Photo by Kamal Sellehuddin

Patience, persistence and optimism are among the many traits that social workers say they must have when applying for legal documentation for stateless children, a process that can take years.

Rita Home’s welfare officer Subramaniam Kuppusamy explains that when he managed an application for a teenage girl, it took him six years before she could get her birth certificate and national identification card (IC) or MyKad.

A long and tedious process is typical of most applications, as authorities have to take the time to investigate and check on the applicant’s place of birth and identity of his or her parents.

Kapar-based Rita Home works with another organisation, called the Development of Human Resources in Rural Areas, Malaysia (DHRRA) to get this long-standing issue resolved. Rita Home’s information officer Bala Kumar K Govindasamy says they will put together all the forms and papers and submit it to DHRRA to be sent to the government agencies.

Subramaniam says there are many reasons why children are left undocumented. “Sometimes the parents can’t read and write, or worse they procrastinate on registering the birth out of ignorance or they are simply unaware of the laws.” He adds that sometimes the parents themselves are undocumented, so they do not understand the importance of this process.

These children can attend primary schools if they have their birth certificates. But without the MyKad, children living in Malaysia can’t continue their secondary education as they need to have a MyKad to meet the Malaysian legal requirements.

They are also unable to apply for vocational skills training, face difficulties registering their marriages or even buying a house or obtaining a car loan. “These rights are simply denied to the children,” says 32-year-old Subramaniam.

Bala also says that some of these children are abandoned at Rita’s home as babies, either because some of their parents are mentally unwell, or are too poor to care for them.

“We had a case when a mentally unsound lady had a child and left the baby at here (at Rita’s Home), and ran away in just a week after giving birth. We were able to get a birth certificate but not a MyKad because we needed the identity of the father to complete that application,” explains 56-year-old Bala.

For children whose parents are mentally challenged, Subramaniam explains that they work with the police. “The police will file a report to help us identify the mentally challenged parents, and we can then use this as a verification for our applications at the National Registration Department (NRD).

“We can’t expect these parents, who are unwell, to do it, so we want to make sure the children have the right paperwork.”

Based on requirements by the NRD, two persons must be present as sponsors when an application for documention for a child is made, one of the two must be a parent of the child. If his or her parents cannot be identified, social welfare workers or guardians can make the application.

Where possible social workers and activists will go to great lengths to find out the identity of children’s parents, before taking over as lead applicants in the registration.

In the meantime Rita Home offers skills training for older children who are unable to attend secondary school because they do not have the right documentation.

“We teach these older children how to make and sell soya bean drinks, run a car wash business or even training to work as a dog handler. We must give them a skill so they can at least find some work and not mix with the wrong crowd,” Bala adds. They are also taught how to sew uniforms, print aprons or customise mugs for companies as a way of expanding their skills.

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In Malaysia, a 2014 report by Dutch-based Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion quoted UNHCR statistics, citing up to 300,000 stateless children and adults living in Malaysia. Malaysia is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Children (CRC), which states that children have a right to a name and nationality, including access to education, at primary and secondary levels, and healthcare.

But since the MyKad is a legal requirement for secondary school enrolment,the onus is on parents or guardians of the child in question to apply for one, making the situation challenging for Malaysia to fulfill the CRC obligations. The way forward is for non-profit organisations like DHRRA and Rita Home to continue their work with stateless children.

Even so, non-profit organisation Voice of the Children points out that undocumented children do not legally exist, and are an extremely vulnerable population, defenseless against all sorts of exploitation.

“They are, for all intents and purposes, invisible, because they only exist under the radar,” as explained in their website. VOC’s objective is to promote law and policy reform to ensure that the rights of every child in Malaysia are protected and no longer at risk of violation.

Under another initiative by the Malaysian Yoga Society, 52-year-old volunteer Pushparani Suppiah explains she is driven to help these ‘stateless’ children by using her rich experience as a former teacher in an international school.

She is passionate and committed to these underserved children, because she says, “I couldn’t see them not go to school.”

Under the Kuala Lumpur-based society’s Karma Yogic Project, Pushparani worked with other volunteers from Aman Malaysia to successfully obtain over 20 birth certificates for children. For this project, the process was completed in about seven months.

She credited the shorter time to her connections and knowledge of government processes of certain ministries and at the NRD. She was able to form these valuable relationships and gather such information when she was working in Sri Cempaka International School.

“I was able to meet the right person in charge (at the government departments) and put in the paper work, and we got the certificates for these children.”

But, like in any other social work, it is never easy. Some of these children’s fathers are convicted criminals and are serving time in prison, explains Pushpa. “So we had to meet the parents in prison to verify that they are the rightful father of a child before proceeding with the application.”

She also says some of these parents are unmarried, which may complicate the process. But according to the Malaysia’s Federal Constitution, for children born in unregistered marriages, their citizenship follows the one of their mothers.

So, despite the many challenges faced by non-profit organisations working to overcome statelessness in Malaysia, social workers like Subramaniam, Bala and Pushpa are doing every bit they can to give these children access to a better life.

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