The Children With No Birthdays

Sri Lankan School Children

Robert writes: “I asked a young girl in a small classroom of pupils how old she was, and she said she didn’t know … and I thought it was just nerves. And so I asked an older boy his age, and he said he didn’t know either. The teacher then explained that none of the children in the room had a birth certificate … and therefore the government doesn’t officially recognise their existence … and so they can’t come to school. Welcome to the Kafkaesque world of Sri Lankan non-formal education.

These are the children with no birthdays, no birthday parties, no birthday presents. They are the sons and daughters of Tamil parents who, in the main, work as casual labourers on the tea plantations. At the time of their birth their parents didn’t register them for some reason – perhaps because they weren’t married which is (supposedly) a requisite, or because they were moving from one estate to another a long distance away. And now, even if their mum and dad have settled down in the one place, or have married, there is no means by which their births can be officially recorded. And so they inhabit a twilight world where a civil servant is appointed to oversee their wellbeing but has no money to help them … since they don’t exist.

The Children With No Birthdays

       On the encouragement of the Udugama Zonal Director’s Office, Matthew and I were introduced to two groups of non-formal students on our trip to Sri Lanka in October 2022. In one school we found twenty or so children sitting behind desks, but with only a few books between them. In the other, the children didn’t even have desks and were sitting on the floor, eager to show us their pastel drawings of houses and rivers and butterflies.

We looked around. Not a crayon, nor any other writing implement was in sight. And there weren’t any toys either – no dolls for the younger ones, no books or sports equipment for the older children. Tamils are often considered inferior to Sinhala people, and it was interesting to learn that some of the Tamil children in the second school did actually have birth certificates – and indeed attended our beloved Bemboda school – but then spent their afternoons with their “non-existent” Tamil friends in a sort of Spartan, “After-School” club.

Sri Lanka Charity Chichester

     Since we have been asked to intervene by the government, we can now try to support them openly. As a first foray into their care, we delivered some stationery and toys to both programmes, and I will write to a relative who works for UNESCO, for her advice. This is more of matter of human rights, however, and I will also seek advice elsewhere within the UN.

Sometimes the indifference and cruelty of grown-ups to children takes your breath away, both in the UK and Sri Lanka. It is our genuine privilege to help in whatever small way we can, and should you wish to contribute in any way, do let Matthew or Jill or me know.

Childrens Charity Sri Lanka

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