KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 2 ― When Vani Batumalai tried to enrol her nine-year-old daughter in school earlier this year, she was taken aback when the administration pressed her to present some very personal documents, including her marriage registration certificate.
The 29-year-old mother of two was further puzzled when the school insisted she provide her husband’s birth certificate and his identification card.
“I am a Malaysian citizen and I have all my documents but my husband does not because his parents did not get him his birth certificate nor his identification card.
“I don't know why they need the marriage certificate. We were both married in a simple religious ritual, but we did not register our marriage as we are both uneducated and we do not know all these procedures.
“But my children are citizens. Isn't that enough?” she told Malay Mail Online in an interview this week.
Vani said she only studied until Primary Four while her husband, S. Supramaniam, quit school at age seven. Now 30, he brings home the money with odd jobs. He has not been able to secure permanent employment because of problems with his identification papers, which he is trying to resolve with his wife’s help.
After much difficulty, Vani was finally able to enrol their firstborn into SJK(T) Bestari Jaya in Kuala Selangor, last October just as the school year was ending. The girl who had been homeschooled for the past two years was also placed in Standard One instead of Standard Three, which is the expected level for those of her age group.
But that was the least of Vani’s problems.
She said the questions about her husband’s status and that of their marriage has not stopped. Instead, she claimed that her child has now become a target of ridicule by some teachers and students at the school.
“I was also questioned in front of some parents over the documents and I was embarrassed and honestly, afraid to fight, because I don't want my children to end up like me and my husband, without proper education.
“I am afraid that if I go against the school, my daughter might be expelled from school,” Vani said.
She added that her younger daughter will be of schooling age next year, and is afraid the nightmare may repeat.
“I just worry about our daughters,” she said.
SJK(T) Bestari Jaya said the information requested by the school was part of the student data system required by the government.
Its officer in charge of student affairs A. Slorence explained that just two weeks before the end-of-year school holidays started, the district Education Department told all schools to record pertinent personal details of each student.
“Let me tell you, the mother gave you wrong information; because the child studies here, so we need the father's details.
“In the student data system, we include all the kids’ information. From details of their identification cards, parents’ citizenship, and that must be the reason the said parents were asked for the documents and nothing else,” she told Malay Mail Online when contacted.
Slorence also said Vani’s elder daughter has been placed in Standard One for the time being so the school could assess her learning abilities as she started formal education two years later than most children her age.
“Each child in Malaysia is certainly qualified to receive proper education according to the government. How can we then deny them? Even if the kid comes to school only at 12-years-old to study, we will still take them in,” she added.
Lawyer Latheefa Koya who has dealt with citizenship and identification registration cases previously said it is “nonsensical” for schools to demand parents to produce their proof of marriage.
“Marriage certificate for security purposes when it comes to custody battles and all that is a different issue. But the issue here is, if the teacher makes it mandatory that parents must provide their marriage certificates, then that is wrong.
“There should be no additional conditions to stop a Malaysian child from registering in Malaysian schools, such as demanding parents to be legally married. That is wrong and unconstitutional,” she said, adding that as long as a child is of the right schooling age, he or she can be registered at any Malaysian school.
Was the school wrong?
When contacted for verification, an Education Ministry official said it is not a must for parents to provide proof of their marriage to register their children for school.
“It is not a mandatory document but those registering the child must be the actual parents,” said the official who declined to be named.
However, he added that the school can request for a marriage certificate if there was doubt on the parents’ identities, although it was on a case-by-case basis.
“Say for an example, when the father's name is not there, then the school might ask for the certificate as proof.
“Also, when parents get divorced, the school would want to see the court order as to who obtained custody of the children and only they can register.
“This is only to avoid any family dispute which might involve the schools and to avoid kidnapping cases from the school’s' compound. It is only to safeguard the children who are under our schools,” he said.
Malay Mail Online was informed later that Vani’s elder daughter will enter Standard Four when school reopens in January, while her younger girl who will turn seven next year will be placed in Standard One.
Development of Human Resources for Rural Areas Malaysia (DHRRA) president Saravanan Sinapan who was involved in the case said the matter had been resolved, after a complaint was lodged with Second Deputy Education Minister Datuk P. Kamalanathan.
Saravanan told Malay Mail Online that the mother had contacted his agency earlier this week for help.
“We met the headmaster [Monday] and he insisted that normally, without the father's identification papers, they cannot be admitted,” he said.
He explained that the problem stemmed from the absence of the father’s name in the girls’ birth certificates, even though Vani was listed as their biological mother.
Saravanan said he has launched a nationwide campaign called “I am going to school”, to help those in similar straits, adding that it will continue until December 15.
“Some keep silent because they are too embarrassed to face society, fearing how they would be viewed by others, if they do not know their father. We want to help them so they can know their rights,” he said.
However, Saravanan said he did not know if there were many other cases like Vani’s as he didn’t have the statistical information.
“We lend a hand when we get informed of such issues,” he said.
Later today, Vani will be going to the school to collect her daughters’ admission letters.
“Yes my kids have been allowed into the school. The school has a letter saying they have registered and accepted my kids and have asked me to come on Friday and collect it.
“I am hoping for the best,” she said, with some trepidation.