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'Invisible' Indonesians nudged to get birth certificates

Without documentation, people bribe local officials to get vital identity papers

Many Indonesians find government offices, like this civil registry in Tangerang near Jakarta, to be intimidating and inefficient. (Photo by Marcel Thee)

JAKARTA -- By official accounts, Noni Damanik does not exist. She is one of about 75 million Indonesians who do not hold birth certificates, but has managed for 27 years by paying small bribes whenever official documentation has been needed, including when she got married.

Damanik and her husband Ivan Zulfan say they have not been held back by their lack of birth certificates. "Living in a remote area, we've survived without it so far," Zulfan said. He added, however, that authorities in his village of Tebing Tinggi require an "understandable" fee to help them and other villagers handle official matters.

Noni Damanik, right, often has to pay small bribes to get official documents, like the license to marry Ivan Zulfan, left, because she lacks a birth certificate. (Photo by Marcel Thee)

About 30% of Indonesia's 250 million people are without birth certificates, according to Tjahjo Kumolo, Minister of the Interior.  That is more than three times the population of neighboring Australia. However, campaigners are working to tackle this entrenched source of corruption by helping the poor to register births.

Many Indonesians do not register their children because a lack of knowledge about the cumbersome application process, or because they do not realize that registration within the first 60 days of a birth is free. After that, local authorities can set their own fees.

Not having a birth certificate is a serious impediment for Indonesians. From school enrolment to healthcare provision to getting married, officials and others demand bribes to approve applications from people without birth certificates.

When children come of age, at 17, those not on the official registry are not eligible for Indonesian passports and have no chance of getting jobs in the formal economy. In divorce proceedings, children cannot be protected by the legal framework.

There have been some attempts to reform the system, including a reduction from seven to four in the number of official documents required to support an application. The government has also begun to allow unmarried couples to apply for birth certificates for their children. In the past, this was not allowed because the state did not want to be seen to be endorsing premarital sex.

Multiple ministries have also been involved in drafting and finalizing a national framework to improve the country's Civil Registration and Vital Statistics system, in part to accelerate the legal process for providing identification documents, which currently takes between two and 30 days.

Zack Petersen, the founder of Count Me In, a platform connecting volunteers and local nongovernment organizations, has been involved in a variety of birth certificate registration programs. He said the system has improved, but ignorance of official procedures and a willingness to continue paying for certificates had sustained and normalized official corruption.

"The policy is getting better, but as long as the middle class keeps paying for birth certificates, poor people will always have the short end of the stick," Petersen said.

Small payments

Wealthier Indonesians avoid the paperwork involved in getting birth certificates by making small payments soon after childbirth for intermediaries to deal with the documentation -- although some do not realize that they are paying a fee. "The cost for the certificate came totaled with the hospital bill. I didn't even know it was free," said Banu Satrio, whose daughter was born recently at a private hospital in Jakarta.

"When you've just had your baby and the (hospital) person comes to ask whether you want them to take care of the birth certificate, of course you say 'yes.'"

From the central government's point of view, the large number of unregistered Indonesians makes it difficult to compile accurate population data, impeding the implementation of effective social and development programs. The effect is to create a large underemployed and mainly "invisible" population, potentially reducing economic growth and threatening social stability.

Nani Zulminami, an official of PEKKA, an offshoot of the Women's National Commission, which works to assist and empower women as heads of households, said local governments were unlikely to welcome change because they see fees for certificate management as sources of funding.

Zulminami said the organization tries to engage communities, often accompanying applicants to get their certificates, as well as collecting data from communities to speed up the process.

Santi Kusumaningrum, co-director of the Center for Child Protection at the University of Indonesia, which is known by its Indonesian initials as PUSKAPA, said almost all officials and service providers wrongly blame the lack of awareness about identity documents on parents.

"The evidence clearly shows that the complicated process of applying for birth registration and associated costs are the main barriers," Kusumaningrum said. PUSKAPA said that demand for certificates would increase if services were more easily available, affordable, dependable and equitable.

The government has sought to encourage parents to register their children by establishing penalties for late registrations, but has only alienated communities, Kusumaningrum said, blaming the problem on a misperception among officials that registration is a citizen's obligation. Coupled with barriers in access and information, the process has created "a reluctant and unaware public, and a passive civil registration system," she said.

The problem is exacerbated by inconsistencies in the value attached to owning birth certificates across Indonesia, which further reduces incentives for some people to access the service. For instance, some areas require birth certificates for school enrolments, but others do not.

However, there are hopes among campaigners that the problem may be eased by efforts to delegate registration to lower levels of government, enabling villages and districts, as well as frontline service workers such as midwives, teachers and social workers to facilitate birth registrations through links to district offices.

There are also clear signs that the message about the importance of documentation is beginning to get through. Unaya, a housemaid, said she had stumped up a bribe of 600,000 rupiah ($44.96) in January to get birth certificates for her three children, aged 12, 15 and 17.

Although the sum was hefty compared with her monthly wages of 1 million rupiah, Unaya said the realization that her eldest child could not graduate from high school without a birth certificate had convinced her of the need to take action.

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