Invisible citizens

Many vulnerable community members lack legal identity documents, meaning that they cannot access free health care or social assistance. Photo by Novrian Arbi for Antara.

 

A key criticism of the Indonesian government’s response to Covid-19 is that it has failed to ensure that emergency financial support reaches the most vulnerable communities, especially those already below the poverty line before the pandemic struck.

 

In collaboration with Atma Jaya University in Jakarta, the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne has been investigating the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable urban communities in Jakarta and Yogyakarta. We have focused on Indonesians living with HIV, the homeless (particularly homeless youth), transwomen, and female sex workers.

 

Social distancing requirements, lockdowns and widespread economic downturn have resulted in catastrophic income loss in these communities, which mostly work in the informal economy, in public spaces and in intimate industries. For people already living at subsistence levels, the loss of income has created dire circumstances of deprivation.

 

The need for access to free health care and economic assistance has never been more pronounced. But many vulnerable community members lack formal or legal identity, rendering them ineligible to access free health care or financial support.

 

In many places across Indonesia, low income communities who experience intergenerational cycles of poverty have low rates of birth, marriage and death registration. Meanwhile, stigmatised communities, such as transwomen and sex workers, are often alienated from official government processes and requirements, as well as the health system.

 

The absence of birth or marriage certificates make obtaining a national identity card (KTP) difficult because it requires an application to a court, letters from a village or neighbourhood head, and witnesses (with their own identity cards) to verify a person’s identity. These processes were already unnecessarily complicated, arduous and time consuming before Covid-19. They have only become worse since the onset of the pandemic.

 

Other vulnerable groups with constrained access to identity cards include women living in abusive relationships. Their male partners often control their access to the family identity card (kartu keluarga) and subsequently to health care, including access to free contraception.

 

Young people under 18 living independently from their families and on the streets are also highly vulnerable, as the state will not issue them individual identity cards. The health and economic needs of people under 18 are assumed to be protected within the family and are linked to the family card. For youth from poor families, or those estranged from their families, such support simply does not exist.

 

People who do not have a permanent or legal address are also unable to obtain identity cards because they cannot provide adequate proof of residence in the district where they are seeking to register for an identity card. This makes it very hard for them to escape the trap of homelessness.

 

Identity cards confer the rights of citizenship, and without these cards, vulnerable communities and individuals are excluded from full citizenship. But sometimes even a valid identity card is not enough. One alarming trend identified during the pandemic has been the use of identity cards as “debt markers”, where lenders take the cards as security. We found that low income women and female sex workers were more likely to be forced into these kinds of debt arrangements than men, because they typically lacked other forms of capital that could be used as guarantee of debt payment.

 

The use of debt as a survival mechanism for these women is rendering them increasingly vulnerable. Without their identity cards, they lose access to free health care and the cash payments introduced to alleviate extreme poverty.

 

Our research also found that discrimination toward transgender women who had valid ID cards saw them wrongly omitted from local government lists of those eligible to receive emergency financial assistance. In such cases, stigma compounds the existing vulnerability of these citizens, and ensures their alienation from rights theoretically guaranteed by the state.

 

Indonesians from impoverished and marginalised communities with no legal identity are, in effect, invisible citizens. The deprivation they suffer is being amplified by the pandemic because they cannot access government social assistance programs, the mechanisms for obtaining legal identity have been frozen or become increasingly protracted, and the free outreach health services that target vulnerable groups have been suspended.

 

Easier, faster and free access to identity cards should be an immediate priority for Indonesia’s ongoing Covid-19 response, and youth aged under 18 years should be legally entitled to their own identity cards.

 

Moreover, discriminatory practices in the implementation of financial assistance programs and the delivery of free health care should be designated as illegal. Ongoing monitoring to ensure equity in the delivery of services is essential if Indonesia is to achieve an inclusive pandemic response. Without it, inequality will only get worse.

 

Dr Linda Rae Bennett is a medical anthropologist who has worked on gender, sexuality, and reproductive and sexual health and rights in Indonesia for the past 20 years. Her recent book, Sex and Sexualities in Contemporary Indonesia, won the 2015 Ruth Benedict Prize from the AQA for outstanding edited volume.

Dewi is a sexual and reproductive health (SRH) practitioner with more than 12 years of experience in programs focusing on youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health education and services in Indonesia. She holds an MA in Health Promotion, Education and International Development from the University College London. She is a PhD candidate at the Nossal Institute for Global Health, the University of Melbourne, and is researching the opportunities and challenges of the school-based HPV immunisation program for primary school girls in Indonesia.