A Big Win for Women and ‘Generation Never Give Up”

Kshama Ranawana

The Registrar General issued a clarification on July 23 that the planned new birth certificates will not carry the ethnicity of the individual.  This was somewhat different to what the Registrar General, N C Vithanage is reported to have told the media on July 22, where he is alleged to have said that along with the removal of the “are parents married” clause the Birth Certificate would also only state Sri Lankan.

But, Wimal Weerawansa, the leader of the National Freedom Front, an alliance partner of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, (SLPP) would have none of that.  Addressing an election rally on July 22, he stated that removal of ethnicity and religion from birth certificates would never happen under their administration.  He had informed both the Prime Minister and the President and the Prime Minister was looking into the matter, he said.

The clarification from the Registrar General read,   ‘The National Birth Certificate does not include details of a religion that did not even exist in the former Birth Certificate. In addition to “race”, the nationality of the parents is also included.’  “The section “Are Parents Married?” that is prejudicial to some children has been removed,” the statement further said.

The new features to be included, according to the Registrar of Persons are:

  1. Named as “National Birth Certificate” instead of the “Birth Certificate”
  2. Prepared in both languages.

      3.The identity number given at birth is included.

  1. Prepared digitally using a more protected paper.
  2. Includes a quick response code, a code number, and a watermark with a hologram sticker.
  3. Issued under the Signature of Registrar General.

The move to remove the “Are parents married” clause did not materialise overnight. In fact, women’s group and youth in care have been agitating for its removal for more than twenty years.

For Anberiya Haniffa, it all started when she was the Programme Officer in charge of ending child poverty at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), in the late 1980’s, where she found that children whose births had not been registered ended up as labourers.   One of the reasons for non-registration of births had been the clause regarding the parent’s marital status.  Since then she has been a strong advocate for having this clause removed, and has been involved in negotiations with various government departments regarding the matter as a member of the National Committee on Women (NCW).

Though  the Registrar of Persons had announced in March last year that Birth Certificates were to be issued under a new format,  Anberiya told Counterpoint that even as late as January this year, the old form birth certificates were being used.  However, she pointed out that even though the term of the National Committee on Women had ended in December last year, its chairperson Swarna Sumanasekera had continued to pursue the matter.

Says former UNP MP (currently with the Samagi Jana Balavegaya) and Chair of the Sectoral Oversight Committee on Women and Gender, Dr. Thusitha Wijemanne, the Committee had received representations from many quarters regarding the marital status issue in birth certificates.   One such had been SOS Children’s Villages Sri Lanka.  The organisation had explained to the sectoral committee about the obstacles children in their care face, when they turn 18 and are ready to go into the world in search of employment or higher education. The lack of a birth certificate or no mention of a father etc. meant that their wards faced all sorts of discrimination.

Dr. Thusitha Wijemanne, (Courtesy FB)
                                                                                    Dr. Thusitha Wijemanne, (Courtesy FB)

The Sectoral Committee is made up of members of parliament with the involvement of professionals who work together irrespective of party differences, to find solutions to various problems.  The Committee had received a proposal regarding the removal of the marital clause from the Chair of the NCW, Swarna Sumanasekera, two years ago, Dr. Wijemanne said.  The Sectoral Committee had then begun discussions with the relevant government departments such as Land, Pensions etc. to resolve objections and to find a solution that was practical and workable for all.   “We had the full support of the AG’s department,  the Registrar General, Education, NCW, SOS and the Commissioner of Probation and Child Care, Chandima Sigera.  Dr. Sudharshanie Fernandopulle (SLPP) a member of the Sectoral Committee too was fully committed to rectifying this matter, she added.    “At this time, the issue of ethnicity was also discussed,’ she added.   “What we wanted was a birth certificate that was common to all,’ she said. “ If a separate certificate was created for children whose parents were not married, or where the father could not be identified, it would have still been discriminatory.’

Officials had been in agreement that since a change was to be made to the existing format of a birth certificate, all other amendments should be introduced at the same time.  As noted in the statement by Registrar General, “The National Birth Certificate introduced in 2019 has been designed to meet national and international standards with the most secure strategies and international standards while eliminating the shortcomings of the former birth certificate.”

Says the former chairman of ICTA, Professor Rohan Samarajeewa.  “At that time (March 2019), it  seemed to be only a limited roll-out’, adding that all pertinent information of the child is to be stored in a data base, accessible to relevant departments when necessary,  with the  birth certificate carrying only the necessary information.

Swarna Sumanasekera
                                                                                                  Swarna Sumanasekera

Speaking to Counterpoint Ms. Sumansekera explained that some of the objections received at first were from the Lands Ministry, who felt non-inclusion of family particulars could lead to inheritance issues.  In the case of the Pensions department, it was again about Widows and Orphans receiving the pension of a deceased parent.  “These issues were all resolved when it was agreed to collect the relevant details through the application form and digitally store them, so those departments or the children could access the information as and when necessary,’ she said. “What we proposed was a simple birth certificate similar to those in the UK and India, for example,’ she said.

Sample of a Canadian birth certificate.  Canada's birth certificates are issued through the provincial governments.(Courtesy Wikepedia)
Sample of a Canadian birth certificate. Canada’s birth certificates are issued through the provincial governments.(Courtesy Wikepedia)

According to the SOS Children’s Villages Sri Lanka  Facebook  entry their battle to end the stigmatization was led by , ‘Generation Never Give Up’ (GNG) a network of youth comprising 135 persons who had grown up in childcare institutions and who had pursued the matter relentlessly.

Announcing  the change of the birth certificate format on its FaceBook page, ‘A big win for all youth without a biological family all over Sri Lanka!,”  SOS Children’s Villages Sri Lanka says it best:

“All individuals need to be treated equally regardless of any complications pertaining to their birth. Unfortunately, children from childcare institutions have been battered over and over again concerning this matter from all service providing organizations including government services. Youth who grew up without biological parents are patronized almost everywhere when they try to apply for jobs, universities, athletic competitions, government benefits, and the list could go on. Such youth are stigmatized from all directions in society just because their birth certificate has a blank line for ‘father’s name’ or ‘marital status’.

Indeed, the change is very welcome, given the number of children unable to get school admission or discriminated against at various stages of life, simply because of that clause about marital status of their parents, a problem they inherit, for no fault of their own, and a society that does not forgive.

The next question we need to address now is what purpose does it serve to have our ‘race/ethnicity’ entered in our birth certificates ?

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