Siti Rusmawati, 45, and her husband Suryadi, 47, are the proud parents of five children and the grandparents of two. The family lives in one small room in a slum area of Penjaringan in North Jakarta. On any given day, you can find Siti by her warung selling goods and speaking with neighbors. She flashes them a smile when they call out her name, revealing a metal front tooth.
Like any parents, the Rusmawatis hope that their children will advance their education and build a better life than theirs. But the family can barely scrape together enough money to get by, let alone afford the required five school uniforms and workbooks for public education in the city.
Beyond that, they face a bigger problem. If one day the Rusmawatis were to vanish, besides their neighbors and some friends who could vouch for them, no one would know that this family existed. That’s because Siti, her husband and all five of her children do not have birth certificates. The couple’s two grandchildren, who are only a couple of months old, don’t either.
This is not an uncommon scenario. According to data from the Central Statistics Agency, more than 60 percent of the 80 million Indonesian children born in the last eight years do not have birth certificates.
The Social Welfare Ministry estimates that only 9 percent of street children in Jakarta have birth certificates. Nationwide, an estimated 47 percent of Indonesian children under the age of 5 are uncounted. The lack of such a crucial document means children cannot access basic state services, leading many children to be forced into child marriage or labor without protection.
An amendment to the Child Protection Law in 2002 made birth certificates free to all citizens, so long as they were obtained within the first 30 days after a child’s birth. But for families living in slum areas, who usually give birth at home, verification of the birth immediately becomes a difficult process.
Some opt to give birth in local clinics, but the clinic stay itself can end up costing a fortune for low-income families, who pay the medical costs first and hold off on getting a birth certificate, unaware that it is free.
A lack of knowledge is what hurts the chances of impoverished families to take advantage of their rights as citizens. Many families wait well past the 30-day period to apply for a birth certificate and end up having to pay late fees, with varying costs depending on the district. If they wait longer than a year, the families must then go to court to prove the child’s identity, and that can cost well over Rp 1 million ($105).
“This is a very long and expensive process, and well beyond the means of low-income families and local NGOs,” says Natha Middlemas, a researcher for the East Java Field Study Project run by the Australian Consortium for In-Country Indonesian Studies, who has extensively researched birth registration and the achievement of child rights.
“The major obstacles to birth registration for low-income families is not so much the cost of the birth certificate but the length of the process involved to get one,” she adds.
For impoverished parents, many of whom are illiterate, the process of obtaining a birth certificate is difficult to understand, let alone carry out. Mothers like Siti do not understand the importance of obtaining one, so the motivation is not there.
“I think I should have birth certificates for my children but I don’t know why,” Siti says as she scoops rice from a cooker in her warung.
Siti has heard from neighbors and friends that a birth certificate is an important document that she should get for her kids, but why they would need one or how to get one is beyond her comprehension.
“I was told that getting a birth certificate would be too expensive,” she says. “Some people I asked said it would cost me about Rp 500,000 for my grandchildren and over Rp 1 million for my children.”
Misinformation like this discourages parents from pursuing the issue, leaving their children closed off from public education and health care.
“The government should make everything easier with this because I am so confused about the steps and what to do and where to go,” Siti says.
Getting an education
Siti’s children range in age from 10 to 24. They have received little to no education, with her eldest child, Ferra, having only completed elementary school. Siti says that Ferra, who is now 24, was able to attend school in the 1990s because then it was not compulsory for students to show a birth certificate. For Siti’s younger children, school is now out of reach.
Sukemi, a special adviser to the education and culture minister, says that the government uses the information from birth certificates to ensure that children receive the compulsory nine years of education, from the ages of 7 to 15.
“We push this because we need to make sure that children aged 7, for example, should immediately be sent to school,” Sukemi says.
He adds that another reason birth certificates are needed for enrollment is that “We want to make sure that their names are correctly spelled on their school certificates, because this is important for further education.”
Sukemi himself says he does not have a birth certificate, just an unofficial letter written at the time of his birth.
“In the past, parents were not aware of the importance of this issue, but I hope today’s parents have better awareness about birth certificates,” he says.
For Siti’s eldest daughter Ferra, the whole process does not seem worth the bother.
“I don’t go to school and, well, I don’t really need [a birth certificate],” she says, while soothing her restless 5-month-old daughter on her lap.
“I don’t care what the government thinks because the government never cared about us. I don’t have an ID card but I don’t want to go anywhere so that is OK with me,” she adds.
The attitude that birth certificates are not important is exactly what needs to change, according to organizations like the Institute of Education Advocacy for Marginalized Children (Lapam) and the Indonesian Street Children Organization (ISCO), which collaborates with communities in Jakarta’s slum areas to raise awareness of the issue.
Lapam helps nonprofits like ISCO process the paperwork needed to get birth certificates, family certificates and other legal documents. In many ways, groups like Lapam and ISCO act as a bridge between impoverished families and the government.
“I hope the government can realize that getting a birth certificate, or any form of ID, is a human right. The government needs to give access to birth certificates to everyone, not just the poor Indonesian families,” says Merlin Simbolon, an expert on child advocacy for Lapam.
“Children shouldn’t be held accountable for their parents’ mistakes. They shouldn’t suffer because of their parents’ problems,” she adds.
Government officials say that a policy has been put in place to educate people on how to obtain a birth certificate.
“We put posters announcing this policy in many cities in the country, so that people will know that they do not have to spend money and time to get a birth certificate,” says Home Affairs Ministry spokesman Reydonnyzar Moenek, adding that the process should take around two weeks in most cases.
“We also work with the Social Welfare Ministry in promoting this service because we want all street children to have birth certificates. It’s important when they want to enroll in a school,” Reydonnyzar says.
As for Siti and her family, ISCO has helped them obtain a family certificate, an official document that costs Rp 20,000 and lists all the members of the family. Siti is beginning to understand the importance of an officially recorded identity.
“I guess it is important because I want my children to go to school and be smart,” she says.