2020 Jul 24
“You are given a name without a choice. You are given a religion without a choice. You are given a race and an identity without your choice. Those who have favourable ones are lucky. But people like us will always be tormented by society. So I decided that somebody must speak up about it”.
– Moses Akash De Silva –
Years of discrimination have come to an end with the recent removal of marital status from all future birth certificates. The decision, announced by Registrar General, N C Vithanage, has been under consideration for two years. Set to be issued after the procedures have been completed, it has been renamed to National Birth certificate, instead of birth certificate.
The move to remove marital status was initially opposed by the Department of Pensions and Department of Lands on the grounds that it would affect inheritance and other entitlements. However, while the information will be withheld from the birth certificate, it will be documented by the Registrar General’s Department to be viewed when necessary.
Discrimination is nothing new to single mothers, children born out of wedlock and orphans in Sri Lanka. While juggling this stigma and hurt on a daily basis, they have also been deprived of opportunity and ripped of their dignity throughout their lives.
We take a deeper look into what the removal of this category means.
As personal as it gets.
Moses Akash De Silva was abandoned at an orphanage at two weeks old. Going through a lot of hardships as an orphaned child, he recalls being called names by students and teachers, despite him receiving the best results for Ordinary Level examinations that year.
“I remember a simple thing. The first time I saw my birth certificate was when I was about 14 or 15 and I thought to myself “What is this?”. I needed it for a school sports meet to prove my age. From there onwards, I was discriminated in a lot of places, including the time I obtained my postal identification card. After carrying this hurt for many years, I started thinking about what we could do about this issue” shared Moses.
His struggles only worsened after he left the children’s home at 18. “For orphanages, the country law states that once you are 18, you have to leave. But this is for people who are good in studies. The others have to leave by 16 and they will put them into a course or something and from there onwards, they have to continue life. I didn’t have a place to go so I had to stay at a bus stand for 3 nights in Kandy. I eventually decided to come to Colombo and I started working at a factory, cleaning machines and that’s how things happened”.
Moses and his wife, who both possess incomplete birth certificates also spoke about how it affects their lives “For everything in Sri Lanka, you need your birth certificate. Places of employment check your birth certificate, which is irrelevant because there’s nothing that is useful in it. Even to open a bank account or enrol your children into schools, you need a birth certificate. To be honest, I was the first person to show my (incomplete) birth certificate to the media and told them not to discriminate against us because of a piece of paper. My birth certificate doesn’t have my father’s details and says that my parents are not married”.
“For children who don’t have parents and don’t know a single thing about themselves, there is a document called a probable age certificate. Basically it is nothing like a normal birth certificate. It states the name given by the orphanage and a doctor assumes the age of the child. They hand-pick a birthday and that is included as well. But even the authorities don’t know what a probable age certificate is”.
Striving to drive change in the country, Generation Never Give Up was born 3 years ago, with the support of SOS Villages. It has grown into a network of approximately 400 care leavers from different orphanages. At the beginning of the year, it was established as an international network and links together care leavers from 20 other countries, where care leavers discuss the issues that they face via a Whatsapp group, named Care Leavers International.
“The term ‘care leaver’ applies to the youth who are leaving care and are coming out of orphanages at the age of 18 or below” explains Moses. “Three years back, with the support of SOS villages, we initiated a project called Generation Never Give Up. We’ve had a speaking session at Water’s Edge. So three other care leavers and myself were the ones who spoke on that particular day and we shared the same experience and we spoke about how children without parents are discriminated by the society and the number of struggles we had to go through”.
“We suggested a few things, one of which was to remove the marital status. Another was to issue a birth certificate that only displays the details of the child. After that, we were invited to come to the parliament and speak to the Oversight Committee For Children and we discussed this matter further on and shared our experiences. One of the issues that they had was that you cannot just get rid of a former birth certificate and issue a new one because that would cause issues when it comes to inheritance. So then we suggested while keeping the former birth certificates, to introduce the issuing of new birth certificates that only document the child’s details. So that it doesn’t discriminate against an orphaned child and a normal child”.
Taking to social media, a percentage of individuals expressed concern over couples moving in together before marriage.
“There is a belief that this will encourage people not to get married, but to just live together and have children. But then that’s already happening in the country and it’s not a new thing” says Moses.
In a conservative country with progressive individuals, the removal of the marital status signifies freedom from discrimination. This is what it means to Moses.
“I was overwhelmed to hear this news. This means that we will not be discriminated against anymore because of the simple fact that our parents are not married. We know how much shame and suffering we had to go through because of a simple word on a birth certificate. This will allow us to move on. We were able to be a voice for thousands of children. On behalf of 14,000 children in orphanages, this is a victory for all of us”.