Monday, 15 May 2017

‘All Children have the Right to an Identity’: Registering Babies in Flores

By: Cory Rogers, Communication Officer 

Maumere, Flores: A 20-foot statue of the late John Paul II towers over the entrance to Bishop Girulfuls Kherubim Pareira’s office in Maumere, a town of 160,000 people deep in Indonesia’s Catholic heartland of Flores.

It was under John Paul II that the Vatican made social work a core mission of the Church; and here in Maumere, that vision remains potent, creating opportunities for UNICEF and Government to do more for children.
“We know we can’t just talk about spiritual needs at the Church,” said Msgr. Girulfis, who heads the Diocese of Maumere. “When you look at the condition of our people, it is clear we have to speak to their material needs too."

Maumere Diocese overlaps with Sikka Regency in Nusa Tenggara Timor (NTT), an arid province of farmers and fisherfolk who confront the same health, wellbeing and gender inequities as much of Indonesia’s underdeveloped eastern frontier. 

It is Sikka's paltry birth registration rate, however, that has church and government officials coming together: As recently as last year, the number of children in Sikka with a birth certificate stood at 38 per cent -- barely half the 67 per cent national average.

“For a long time it's been gereja jalan sendiri, pemerintah jalan sendiri [the Church goes it alone, the Government goes it alone].” said Romo (Father) John, who heads the diocese’s Puspas, or pastoral council. The Puspas implements diocese-wide interventions on a range of issues, including domestic violence and financial literacy, utilizing its 3000 strong neighbourhood prayer groups (KBG) to raise awareness and push for behaviour changes.
Romo John discusses Puspas programmes at his office in Maumere.
© Cory Rogers / UNICEF / 2017  
"Since the beginning, we've made these actions a priority," he said. "But there are many problems, among them birth registration, which neither the Church nor the Government can solve alone, and we know children need birth certificates to progress through school, to get a passport and other rights," he added.  

In 2016, with UNICEF funding and technical guidance, the Diocese and the local Government pledged to work together in 12 of the regency’s 36 parishes to bring more children out from the shadows.

With the Puspas taking charge of community mobilization and the Sikka Civil Registration Office (CRO) ramping up registration drives, the short-term aim is to reach the national target of 85 per cent birth registration by 2019. Ultimately, the target is to achieve universal birth registration by 2030, in line with global Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.9.

The challenge of belis 

Obstacles to meeting the 85 per cent target are multidimensional, but local officials say the first step is getting more couples married at the church; a marriage letter from the church is required by the CRO if a child is to be registered with the name of both the mother and the father. A 2016 reform permitting couples to apply for an exception to the law has not yet been adopted.

“This obstacle concerns the problem of patriarchy,” says Romo Yoris, a Puspas executive. “The father doesn't like the idea that the child is not seen as his, so we work to encourage couples to formalize their marriage before having a child so the child can easily take both names.”
Romo Yoris smiles on the portico of Heart of Christ Church in Ili Parish, Maumere, Flores.
© Cory Rogers / UNICEF / 2017  
It is a customary marriage ceremony called belis -- where couples are expected to exchange gifts valued at many times their monthly incomes – that pushes couples to delay marriage in the first place, he added.

Under this system, men provide horses, chickens and millions of rupiah to the family of the bride, while brides gift pigs, sarong (fabrics) and food to the family of the groom, said Karolina Klong, 27, a Maumere native and mother.

"We know it's expensive, but it [is a tradition that] has been passed down from generation to generation, so we still follow it,” she said, adding that she has yet to legally marry her husband, who works as a motorcycle taxi driver in town.

It was the high cost of belis, Karolina said, that prevented her from marrying prior to having a child, and it was why her son had not been registered.

Until recently, that is.

Signs of progress

Karolina Klong smiles as she finalizes the paperwork needed to register her son.
© Cory Rogers / UNICEF / 2017  

In recent weeks, UNICEF, the Diocese of Maumere and the Civil Registration Office have been working to accelerate progress on birth registration through the establishment of community-acceleration teams at the village level and a mobile registration campaign in area churches. The initiatives bring CRO employees together with diocese officials at churches in the 12 pilot parishes to encourage parents to register their children. Plans are currently being devised to expand to all 36 parishes in the regency.

In the week before a church visit, members of the Puspas liaise with local priests and the Government sends instructions to village heads to reach out to families with unregistered children. Karolina says it was a home visit from her village head that reminded her to go to Heart of Christ Church in Ili Parish where the mobile drive was happening.

"He came knocking on my door,” Karolina said, grinning on the church portico.

One of about a dozen mothers to come, Karolina said she’d grown tired of paying for medicine when her son fell ill. With a birth certificate, she should be able to sign up for the Government’s free health care plan and pay nothing.

Since the mobile drives began earlier this year, over 200 babies have been registered at Ili, representing over a quarter of the parish’s population of unregistered children.

The advances mirror the situation across the regency, where rates having risen from 38 to 50 per cent in just over a year – “significant progress”, according to Pak Yoseph Ansar Rera, the local head, or bupati, of Sikka Regency.

Maria Celsia Maxsensi Troy waits in line at a mobile birth registration site to get her daughter (right) registered.
© Cory Rogers / UNICEF / 2017  

“We’ve forged a good partnership [with the Diocese of Maumere], and we are always happy when another party wants to work together to help children,” Ansar said.

He hopes that that by expanding the registration drive the Government can meet the 85 per cent birth registration target for 2019. “By the end of this year, we think we can achieve 70 per cent,” he said.

According to Astrid Dionisio, a UNICEF Child Protection Specialist based in Jakarta, the progress in Sikka has been encouraging in terms of its regional implications, too.

“The experience shows how the Church can use its community reach to run targeted initiatives alongside Government,” she said.

“In places like Papua there are districts where only a single child has been registered, and these are even more remote than in Maumere,” she said.
“The progress shows what is possible by partnering with Church institutions, and shows a way forward for continuing to ensure all children have the right to an identity.”