We're in Sabah. a state in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo. This state has the highest rate of statelessness in the country, and about 50% of them are youths aged below 21. The exact numbers are unclear, but we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of youth. The situation of statelessness in Sabah is a complex geopolitical issue. That’s not to say that all stateless children are born to Indonesian or Filipino parents. Among the stateless youths are children born to parents from the rural villages of Sabah - where modern-day requirements such as birth certificates and identity cards hold little importance. Parents are simply unaware of the necessity and the need to register their child’s birth. In Malaysia, 6-years of primary education is compulsory for all youths, most that do go on to complete 11 years of schooling. However, this is a privilege accessible only for children with a birth certificate.
According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), 90.7% stateless children contribute to the large number of youths who are out of school at pre-primary level. Being denied access to education at such an early age can hinder the development and growth of these young minds - ripping them of the opportunity to lead a stable life, once older. Thus, stateless youths are in the hands of voluntary teachers and community members to provide them with primary education through informal schools and learning centres. During our scoping mission, stateless youths only receive about 3-hours of schooling per day. Furthermore, many of these stateless youths do have a job. One of the girls we’ve met, went to school in the morning and went to work as a waitress in the afternoon and evening. She was a 12 year old, who would have been preparing for UPSR if only she had a birth certificate. More than 1 in 3 children drop out of school because of financial reasons (UNICEF, 2019). So, this practice is an unfortunate norm given their circumstances. While the borders and the regulations within it limits access to schooling, the internet removes these limits. It empowers and enables stateless youths to access what is beyond their reach. In the virtual world, the only identity they need is an email address.
“All that these students need is digital literacy and a bit of confidence, and they’ll be rocking the show,” said Gurpreet Singh, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Me.reka.
During the scoping mission, we learned that it was crucial to teach stateless youths to put food on the table. Many of the schools we visited were already teaching their students necessary living skills such as sewing, baking, sales, and such. The common reality here is that students will only be able to secure low-wage jobs, and thus, poverty becomes an inevitable challenge throughout their lifetime. This, however, is a perception that must be shifted, and can be shifted by upskilling and educating the community. The World Bank reports that making productive investments in basic education (starting at pre-school) for all Malaysian children is essential to close the educational – and income – gaps. Hence, teaching them skills that will allow them to earn more is vital to alleviate poverty and provide them a real chance at life. Digital literacy skills enable stateless youths to access learning materials and self-learn anything they desire, opening up job opportunities that are unbound by nationalities and countries borders, helping them earn better incomes. Digital literacy also enables contribution to their communities.. Above all, digital literacy gifts independence and freedom to these stateless youths. A comprehensive national digital education gives children access to the breadth of the world, no matter their background (Smith, 2016).
The ‘Digital Literacy Class’ in the Matakana Learning Centre began with exposing the students to the perks of a Google account - the various applications available and it’s google drive storage space. Then, we utilised the youth’s familiarity with social media. Through Facebook and Instagram, the youths learned to form online businesses to generate income. They learned to shift their interest from consuming content on social media to creating content for social media. Through social media marketing, they learned to use storytelling to create quality content to reach their desired target audience. Using platforms like Canva, students explored and developed graphic design skills. The highlight of the Digital Literacy classes was their Capstone Project. The students raised RM 75,000 to build a digital hub and the infrastructure needed to support it at Matakana Learning Center, using the course’s skills. Despite never using a touchpad or a physical keyboard before, the students showcased tremendous advancements throughout the 100-hours Digital Literacy course. Me.reka’s 100-hours Digital Literacy course’s crucial achievement is opening up an entire universe of opportunities to self-educate. The youths learned to obtain answers for all their questions through Google and Youtube - giving them unobstructed access to knowledge, know-how’s, expertise and skills, thus providing them with access to more dedicated learning portals such as Google Classroom.
“Once you know how to use digital resources, the world is your oyster!” proclaimed Gurpreet Singh, “The uncertainty of the future and safety of the stateless children hinders self-confidence and [discourages them] from having an ambition. We were exposed to the children’s talents and skills through this course, watching them showcase their learning and understanding of digital trade tools and tricks,” sayid Kathryn Rivai, the founder of Matakana Learning Centre in Beaufort, Sabah. “Although initially hesitant, they have now put all hands on deck; and are encouraging efforts to take things to the next level!”
Me.reka recognises that teaching digital literacy will not provide an immediate solution to stateless children, youth, and families’ complex geopolitical issues. It will need countries to come together and solve these decades-long issues. However, digital literacy enables them to earn a dignified income, regardless of where they are - even if they face the risk of getting deported.
Sander, F. G., & Pui, S. Y. (2015, January 30). How to narrow the gap between the rich and poor in Malaysia? World Bank. https://blogs.worldbank.org/eastasiapacific/how-narrow-gap-between-rich-and-poor-malaysia
Smith, L. (2016, October 11). The Importance of Digital Literacy for Children Worldwide. BORGEN. https://www.borgenmagazine.com/digital-literacy-for-children/
United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. (2019). Children Out of School: The Sabah Context. UNICEF. https://www.unicef.org/malaysia/media/921/file/Out%20of%20School%20children%20%20(OOSCI)%20.pdf