“Without an ID, you don’t exist”: Gender and identity on International Women’s Day 2018

Savita Bailur

Amina, a Palestinian refugee in Jordan (Photo credit: Emrys Schoemaker)

Today is International Women’s Day. Many topics will be discussed, from women and health to women’s STEM education, politics and rights not to mention, of course, #metoo. Underlying all of these, if we can be so bold, is the foundation of women and identification — particularly in an increasingly digital world. If you don’t have identity documents, as Shailaja, one of our interviewees told us in India, you don’t exist. And women are particularly at risk of “not existing”, starting right from birth registration.

For the last couple of years, Caribou Digital has been working extensively in the identity field. Some of the projects we have worked/are working on are:

Gender is a critical component in all these studies. This is what we know on gender and identification from all the research so far:

A UNHCR birth registration poster we encountered in a mayor’s office in north-west Côte d’Ivoire (Photo credit: Hélène Smertnik)

Mothers are generally very aware of identity credentials for their children — keeping birth certificates, school certificates and so on. Here’s an interview with Shailaja, mentioned above. Shailaja is a 28 year old single mother:

Interviewer — “And all those years from the time that your daughter was born, to the time that she started going to school…all those years you had kept these documents safely?

Shailaja — “Yes. And I have it safe even today.

Interviewer — “Did you know back then itself that such and such a document would be asked later at the school?

Shailaja — “They say that every child needs it, no? They say details of birth and so forth must be shown at school. So I knew it too. They had asked for details when I went to school but I did not have a birth certificate. There were no such things back then. But hereon we will need all that.”

  • Time taken in government interactions has much greater impact on women than men as it can mean time away from children, in-laws, expected responsibilities and so on. In addition, government spaces can be intimidating for women, and can be played upon in terms of power by officials (this came up in our India research).
  • Bodily privacy can be particularly important in terms of enrolment onto biometric IDs for women — e.g. the preference to be registered/fingerprinted by a woman, rather than a man etc.
Registration for a bank account in Assam, India (see www.identitiesproject.com) (Photo credit: Emrys Schoemaker)
  • We need to think carefully about linking identification to mobile phones, as women’s access to mobiles is typically much lower than men’s (see GSMA’s latest mobile and gender report).
  • Once “identified”, it often seems that the onus is on a woman to protect her privacy/modesty and thereby identity, for example not do “wrong things” on a mobile phone. See our research for Standard Chartered on how parents in Nigeria and India believed their daughters were “good girls” online, not recognizing that others might also be responsible.
  • Identity is at a particular intersection of formal, static, individual systems and dynamic, communal, lived experiences — while women often encounter household issues requiring identity credentials (e.g. getting rations in India), they need to deal with their own individual circumstances too (e.g. changing their credentials after marriage and/or moving into the marital home). A double bind.
  • Women are also particularly at risk because they are increasingly entering the workplace, but don’t have the support to get ID credentials to do so. Female factory and domestic workers and waste recyclers in India told us they wanted Aadhaar cards not only for the benefits, but because it gave them an identity and stopped them being hassled by police (although a card can also be withheld as a form of power play as we found). However, these women approached NGOs for help because they found government processes too labyrinthine. The intersection of digital and non-digital and the requirement of identification there is also complex — see this article on women in online job platforms and how their identities are constructed.
  • Identification schemes can have unintended gender consequences — for example in research in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan so far (next in Uganda), many women are forced to take on the management of ID credentials and the accessing of services as men come off the schemes to not be identified as a refugee, distorting the recording of female headed households. Similarly, in India, we found men applying through women for banking and benefits schemes meant for women.
  • Gender, of course, goes beyond women — it’s about relationships and sexualities. We need more on men’s roles in mediating access to identification by women. We also need more on transgender experiences. In India, we heard specific concerns from transgender activists on bodily checks. Those living with HIV/AIDS also spoke of their concerns of the need to produce an Aadhaar card for anti-retroviral (ART) drugs. An activist remarked: “now what has happened in HIV-positive communities, in all the ART centres, only if we have Aadhaar cards, the ART box is given. They are making it compulsory. Due to this, our identity of HIV positive is being shown. […] Who have they asked before doing this? Have they asked our opinion?”

What next

These are just some of the thoughts on how we’ve encountered gender in our ID work so far. What we know simply is that:

  • Women experience obtaining and using identity credentials in a very different way to men
  • After accessin identification credentials is under-researched
  • We need to talk about effective use of identity credentials, not just about adoption
  • We need a comprehensive, multi-country, intersectional review of how identification impacts on women and girls as well as those who identify as transgender. What are quantifiable aspects, e.g. time taken for a man versus a woman? What are the incentives and enablers for women to obtain identity documents?

There’s still a lot to do in this area. But one thing is for sure — without identity credentials, women do not have an equal footing to men in society and that’s a sobering thought on International Women’s Day.

Author: Savita Bailur

I’m a researcher in digital development. Currently a Research Director at Caribou Digital and Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. Previous experience includes USAID, World Bank, Commonwealth Secretariat, World Wide Web Foundation, mySociety, Microsoft Research India and University of Manchester (lectureship).

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