The Malaysianometer – The State of Stateless Women and Children

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Thirty one year old Jane and a man approach the counter on a Sunday morning. For ten years, Jane has frequented the registration, immigration and social welfare departments to no avail. With little hope left, she has now approached the Special Implementation Task Force on Indian Community (SITF) to help with her case.

“I am born here!” she says with conviction. “With a birth certificate that barely holds any information, I was left at a government welfare home as a new-born. After completing primary school, I was denied entry into secondary school because I did not have a blue identity card, MyKAD. Instead of getting MyKAD at the age of twelve, I was issued a green identity card because my birth certificate does not state the nationality of my mother and has no information about my father.”

Jane completed secondary school through home-schooling and thereafter enrolled in courses at private institutions. With her certificates, she managed to get jobs at kindergartens that overlooked her MyKAS.

At 21, she left the shelter. Though she considered herself Malaysian, she had nothing to prove it. In one of her attempts to apply for MyKAD, which represents Malaysian citizenship, the officer at the immigration department said she would have better luck claiming citizenship at the Indian High Commission since she looked Indian.

Then an officer at the registration department told her she should get married to a Malaysian to increase her chances of getting MyKAD. She did, and now she and her husband run around Putrajaya (government headquarters) seeking what is rightfully hers. It is a tedious and costly task.

With advice from SITF, Jane and her husband began narrating her life story on paper. To better support their case, Jane was advised to get corroborating documents from each shelter and her foster family.

Anyone of us could have been Jane. Based on Malaysian laws our sense of belonging and dignity is dependent on our citizenship status, which is dependent on our parent’s citizenship, which we have no control over.

We who are “eligible” for a MyKAD take it for granted as we think it is our right since we were born in Malaysia. We don’t think about the criteria to get one, nor its importance for accessing schools, hospitals, jobs, a driver’s license or a passport.

‘Although wards of the state, abandoned children placed in government-run welfare homes can be at heightened risk of statelessness. In some cases, children in welfare homes do not possess birth certificates, or any form of documentation to confirm their citizenship status. There are cases of children being issued with birth certificates that stipulate their citizenship status as “bukan warganegara” (non-citizen). At age 12, they will then have to apply for MyKas. The National Registration Department does not appear to have instituted any form of citizenship determination procedures to resolve the citizenship status of these children.’ (Status report on child rights in Malaysia, 2012).

Rules and regulations govern a country to ensure it runs smoothly, but the laws and policies have to correspond with the people and times, not deny them of basic rights to education and healthcare. Malaysia, which hosts over two million (nearly 10% of the total population) working class migrant workers, a majority of whom are women, has a looming fear that without control and policies, the country will be exploited by migrant workers. The people affected by such parochial thinking, are those born in Malaysia to either non Malaysians or Malaysians, but for varying reasons do not have a birth certificate. Given the porous borders of today’s world and the feminisation of migration, women and children suffer from these archaic policies.

Nonetheless, the issue of statelessness in Malaysia has been around for decades and affects all people. Due to historical, geographical and economic reasons, a disproportionately high number of cases have been reported amongst the Malaysian Indians in Peninsular Malaysia and the Sabahan population in East Malaysia. Within these groups, women and girls make up the majority due to their predisposition.

‘An unknown number of children of Indian descent are at risk of statelessness in Malaysia due to their lack of a birth certificate or identity documentation. Reasons for not possessing such documentation include a lack of knowledge of the importance of legal documents; administrative or procedural problems in obtaining such documents; financial difficulties; non-registration of the parents’ marriage; the child being born out of wedlock; no proof of birth; and the abandonment of the child without identification documents.’ (Status report on child rights in Malaysia, 2012).

Many were promised their citizenship through the MyDaftar campaign just before the 13th General Elections in May this year. But the number of citizenships granted was less than half of the people who turned up for registration because the majority lacked proof (based on the data from SITF, June 2012). Within seven days, 14,882 applications for MyKAD were submitted (…).

If the issue of statelessness is ignored, women and children who have not been granted citizenship will be left stateless, which creates a vicious cycle of parents transferring their disadvantages to their children and prolonging poverty.

Whilst shadowing the SITF team, I came across mostly girls and women. Mitchelle was one of them with a heart wrenching story. The absence of a valid birth certificate has denied her of her childhood. She has neither been to school nor made good friends. For the last two years, she was responsible for caring, feeding, cleaning and protecting her family and their honour. Although she is 12 years old, her eyes and mannerisms say otherwise. Beneath that amiable smile, was pain and angst.

Mitchelle was born to a Malaysian father and a foreign mother. Her parents were not married and based on Malaysian laws, the children are born out of wedlock, thus her father is not legally her father. He was still legally married to his first wife when he had a second family. Mitchelle’s mother stayed in Malaysia illegally past her initial visa, therefore did not have legal documentation. Mitchelle’s birth in a clinic is the only proof she has of being born in Malaysia.

To further complicate the situation, Mitchelle’s father, the only Malaysian link, fell sick and passed away 2 years ago. Mitchelle’s mother had to immediately pick up the bills by working jobs at odd hours leaving Mitchelle alone with her two younger brothers. The mother ran away in June this year. They have no legal documentation that proves their Malaysian lineage, so they cannot go to school. Mitchelle’s current academic level is equivalent to children 3 to 4 years younger than her.

Mitchelle wants a life where she goes to school with friends and lives with adults she can call parents. She has only heard about classrooms, teachers and students; however, she is determined to go to school. She dreams of becoming a special needs teacher.

Mitchelle’s uncle and aunty are seeking supporting documents to apply for a birth certificate enabling them to adopt the children and send them to school.

According to child advocate Amy Bala, the State needs to look at children who are lost in transit. They fear adults are manipulating the system.

The State is responsible to protect and not punish children. It is also responsible to protect women who experience economic and psychological abuse which puts them in a vulnerable position. There are cases whereby women handover their identity cards to their partners who use it as collateral for loans, only never see it again. The State needs to acknowledge the multiple discrimination and inequalities that women face in order to address the root causes of this issue. The women’s vulnerability is heightened when they are not legally married or the husband runs away.

Some argue this is not a racial or ethnic issue, but current statistics show Malaysian Indians and a particular group of East Malaysians disproportionately represent the majority of the undocumented residents.

The national registration department has been criticised for employing a large number of Malay Muslims with poor representation of Malaysian Chinese and Indians. The intake of Chinese and Indian staff disproportionately reflects the percentage they represent in the population.

The breeding of corruption has worsened the situation. Middle men of political parties and pseudo agents who have found a niche market are on the lookout for naïve victims who pay them in hopes of getting through the application process. Ms. Thanam from JEWEL said that the agents often take the money and run away with the documents, never to return. The complexity of this issue requires multiple government agencies working cohesively to resolve it. There needs to be acknowledgement that this is an issue in our country, said Ms. Thanam. The statistics which varies from 40, 000 (Al Jazeera) to 450, 000 (claim by HINDRAF as reported in The Numbers Game) need to be reassessed for final validation.

SITF acknowledges that we have a huge unresolved issue at hand. The establishment of SITF is commendable and given their limited capacity they are trying to mitigate the issue, but roadblocks such as laws and bureaucracy inhibit them.

The convoluted process and the attitudes of civil servants have resulted in a large majority of undocumented women and children running back and forth between various departments in hope of changing their status.

The government should not discount our future with its short-sightedness. If it is keen on change that could progress the nation to its fullest capacity, every woman and child in its country need to be treated with respect, as equal right holders.

Echoing Ms. Thanam, the first barrier to overcome is political will that demonstrates a genuine interest in resolving the issue. Additionally, the government needs to take a two-prong approach. First, resolve the citizenship issue for vulnerable children; second, have public education and healthcare access for all regardless of their citizenship status. Temporary measures that address the needs of women and children should be prioritised while reformulating the laws that discriminate them. There has to be transparency, more competent civil servants, less red tape and reduced corruption.

An educated and healthy society contributes to the economic and social progress of one’s country which in effect reduces crime rates. It tips the balance into a favourable outcome and creates bright future for the nation.

Only with a concerted effort between civil society initiatives and the government in power can significant change happen. As a party to the CRC and CEDAW , Malaysian government has the obligation to fulfil its duty in promoting and protecting the rights of children and women.

It is not a matter of pitying those who are less fortunate than us. It is about questioning the uneven playing field. When rights are inalienable, interdependent and universal, the State does not have the right to pick and choose the rights it protects. Keeping silent about an issue that does not directly concern you will not make it go away.

If injustice is evident and the State is not held accountable, you may never know when that issue may become your own.

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”― Benjamin Franklin

Sources: 1. Status Report on Children’s Rights in Malaysia (Dec 2012), by Child Rights Coalition Malaysia. 2. Report on Findings (Dec 2011) by the Special Implementation Taskforce (SITF) on the Indian Community, Prime Minister’s Department. 3. Al Jazeera Report on Recognising Malaysia’s Stateless Indians (2011) 4. The Numbers Game – Stateless Indians in Malaysia (2012). Commentary by R. Chander for Centre for Policy Initiatives… 5. Dato’ Siva Subramaniam, Advisor & Consultant to the Special Implementation Taskforce (SITF), Cabinet Committee on the Indian Community, Prime Minister’s Department (Jun 2010 – current). 6. Thanam Visvanathan, President of JEWEL (Johor Women’s League), Documentation Taskforce. 7. Former Senator YB Ramakrishnan Suppiah, Democratic Action Party (DAP). 8. Amy Bala, Child Advocate & former officer at the Welfare Department

Case studies: 1. Mitchelle, 12 y.o. No birth certificate. Born in Malaysia to Malaysian father and foreign mother. Father passed away, mother disappeared. Never attended school. 2. Pirthika, 6 y.o. No birth certificate. Born in Malaysia to Malaysian parents. Father in prison, mother home maker. Does not have documents to attend school next year. 3. Jane (not real name), 31 y.o. Incomplete birth certificate, holds green identity card (rare). Born in Malaysia, parents unknown. Raised in a shelter. Attended government primary school and completed secondary home-schooling.

References: i The green identity card, MyKAS, is a card issued to the person who is classified as a ‘temporary resident’, who had come into the country legally and allowed to stay in Malaysia through an immigration pass for a period of twelve months and above; or a person who was born in Malaysia but his/her nationality cannot be ascertained (stateless) ii Convention in the Rights of the Child iii Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.