Women and ID in a digital age: Five fundamental barriers and new design questions

By Dr. Savita Bailur (Caribou Digital) Devina Srivastava (ID2020) and Hélène Smertnik (Caribou Digital)

Identity is a human right … a woman’s right …

“I think we women need Aadhaar more than men … it’s not just our identity, but we also need it to look after our family and children. I am the one who takes my daughters to the hospital, deals with their school. I am the one who will get the rations or get new gas cylinders. But they [the government] don’t think of any of this when they tell you it’s your job to get an Aadhaar card but don’t help you”

(Saguna, resident of “Garudahalli” in rural Karnataka, interviewed for Caribou Digital’s Identities research, India)

The first principle of the manifesto developed by ID2020 in consultation with UNHCR is that identity is a universal human right. Individuals must have the ability to prove who they are, without reliance on any single government or institution. Equally, at Caribou Digital, where “identification in a digital age” has been the focus for more than five years, Saguna’s comment has echoed throughout Caribou Digital’s fieldwork: women are in need of identification credentials just as much, if not more, than men, but often struggle to obtain them. Women and girls comprise an underserved demographic in terms of identification. The World Bank estimates that in low income countries over 45% of women lack a foundational ID. ID systems being developed in a digital age need to be gender-sensitive to truly serve the identification needs of women and girls.

Ahead of the ID2020 Annual Summit, this piece calls out five challenges that women face while accessing ID. These are based on our joint learnings — at ID2020 from the ID2020 Alliance and at Caribou Digital, from the research on identification Caribou Digital has conducted across ten countries to date (Bangladesh, Brazil, Ghana, India, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Uganda).

Fieldwork in New Delhi for Caribou Digital’s Identities research in India. Photo credit: Dr. Savita Bailur
A Syrian refugee in Lebanon for Caribou Digital’s Identity at the Margins research. Photo credit: Dr. Emrys Schoemaker

… But women face five main barriers

1. Barriers of information

Women are less aware and informed as compared to the men in their families, especially with respect to service access. The barrier to information is combined with the cultural barrier — of expectations — where some women can feel (or are made to feel) ID is not relevant to them. In Caribou’s India research, a female homemaker in rural Assam called in her 14 year old nephew when asked about ID during the interview “ask him — he can tell you more about all that than me” she said.

ID2020 believes that successful digital ID systems will require listening to and working intimately with those who our efforts seek to empower, and delivering solutions based on the needs that these parties express. Multi-channel informational campaigns are an integral part of ensuring enrollment. There lies a need for more research and investment in understanding the following:

  1. What are the channels and avenues accessed highly by women and girls?
  2. What are the methods utilized to specifically inform women and girls around digital identity?
  3. What are the opportunities that digital identity creates for women and girls, and how are these opportunities communicated to them?

2. Barriers of access

We live in a digital era. Individuals need a trusted, verifiable way to prove who they are, both in the physical world and online, to assert who they are as well as access services . But for many women, there’s simply no time to get an ID when earning and putting food on the table is a greater priority. Shilpi was a domestic worker and single mother without an ID in Caribou Digital ’s When ID Works for Women research in Bangladesh. Even though she wanted her ID, she said “I can’t take time off from work to go to the village to get a chairman’s certificate [village headman certificate] for an ID. It’s simple, the days I don’t work, I won’t get paid”.

See Shilpi’s story:

Barriers to ID lead to other barriers, such as financial inclusion. Caribou Digital’s research reiterates World Bank’s Findex study that on the whole men own more mobile banking accounts than women, which leads many women to channel salaries through husband/father/brother bank accounts. This creates further dependencies and limits the independence that ID systems hope to enable (though being protected behind other identities may also be preferred by some women).

In Côte d’Ivoire, Caribou Digital found a 2017 SIM registration process impacted on women who did not have identification credentials, locking them out of mobile money accounts. Photo credit: Hélène Smertnik

ID2020 believes that in order to enable digital identity at scale, there is a need to identify and leverage many entry points. For instance, maternal healthcare service delivery presents a tremendous opportunity to provide women and health workers with a durable, portable and secure digital identity at a vital stage of life, enabling access to a wider range of social services, while also improving access to health interventions that all women deserve and need. It is important to ask:

  1. What are the measures taken to ensure that women can access support around their ID at ease (including registration and enrolment)?
  2. How does digital identity help women and girls feel more protected and secure in their environments?
  3. Who else has access to the digital ID of a woman or girl?

3. Barriers of ownership

Shilpi’s example above illustrates the extra transaction cost in getting an ID, which adds to it becoming a low priority. Once a woman does get an ID, an additional issue is ownership over it. Owning someone’s ID is owning their identity. In a poorer area of Recife, Brazil for UNICEF research, Caribou Digital learnt about how gang members often held onto IDs as collateral for payments (for drugs), sometimes even mistakenly holding on to someone else’s ID.

In India, in-laws held onto Shailaja’s IDs (voter ID, Aadhaar) so when she escaped from the joint-family home, she had to start afresh, relying on her brother’s credentials to rent a flat in Bengaluru. Domestic workers in the Middle East have reported similar instances of passports being withheld by employers.

In Bangladesh, a start-up online catering company said one of the major issues they first encountered was that women did not physically keep their ID cards (which they need to register with the service) with them — the men typically kept these, so they had to ask the husbands to give these to them, which raised other issues of whether the husbands were comfortable with them working. In many families, this may be simply a question of habit (who keeps the important documents in the family?), but raises the point of owning one’s own identification credential.

The ID2020 approach emphasises that individuals must have control over their own digital identities, including how personal data is collected, used, and shared. Everyone should be able to assert their identity across institutional and national borders, and across time.

  1. How can ID systems ensure women and girls have complete control over their own digital identities and linked services?
  2. What are the measures taken to ensure that women and girls are not listed as dependents to IDs possessed by the men in their households?
  3. How is informed consent over access, linkage to service delivery, dependencies and ownership ensured for women?

4. Barriers of societal expectations

Access to ID is heavily affected by societal perceptions (by men and women) of the need for ID for women. New ID systems can complicate these — for example, Caribou research on refugees found that as South Sudanese women often fled before male relatives to Uganda, they were registered in Ugandan camps as heads of households. This empowered them as the official recipients of UNHCR rations and Ugandan government land, but often led to domestic violence as male heads of household sought to reclaim their position.

These societal power relations can create significant risk if digital ID programs are not thoughtfully designed and carefully implemented. At ID2020, we do not underestimate the risks of technical, social and data complications, misuse and abuse, especially in cases of large-scale centralized ID systems. This “better” model of digital identity requires sustained and transparent collaboration across all stakeholders on the ground. It is important to be sensitive to societal complexities and power dynamics, and design ID systems to capture these. New ID programmes (digital) are an opportunity to ensure that ID enrolment and systems take into account those sensitivities.

  1. What are the behavioural nudges designed in the digital ID programs?
  2. What are the efforts towards gender literacy designed to educate members in the community (across all stakeholders)?
  3. How are the men and boys included in programs focused on women and girls?
A woman registering for a bank account in Assam, India for Caribou Digital’s Identities Research. Photo credit: Dr. Emrys Schoemaker

5. Barriers of intersectionality

Race, ethnicity, class, income, geographic diversity within women are all factors which influence ID take-up for women. In our Caribou Digital Côte d’Ivoire research, women of Burkinabe ethnicity stated they faced more challenges obtaining IDs than those who were treated as “Ivorian” by enrolment agents. An extremely impoverished female sex worker in India (one of our respondents) may have a very different approach (and resources) to obtaining an ID than a female East African trader, such as those in this World Bank video. In India, when domestic workers do not have Aadhaar (or a mobile phone), the female employer (“lady of the house”) can often help the worker get one (Tripti Lahiri has interesting examples in her book Maid in India). This was found to be particularly the case just after demonetisation when employers could only pay employees through mobile money, so often helped with “onboarding of identification”.

See female cross-border traders in East Africa:https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fembed%2Fvideoseries%3Flist%3DPLopq6yGfmFAt4QTZB2GjmcvKybZyeQccN&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DQOKs9KWu_ok&image=https%3A%2F%2Fi.ytimg.com%2Fvi%2FQOKs9KWu_ok%2Fhqdefault.jpg&key=a19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=youtube

These intersectional differences between women should be explored because they also open up opportunities.

  1. What are other social or cultural factors that may complicate access in local contexts?
  2. What are the measures taken to capture possibilities of intersection between gender and other social factors?
  3. Is access to ID always along existing divisions (e.g. race, ethnicity, class, income, geographic diversity) or can women use ID to “leapfrog” forward?

Going forward

All the above barriers are interlinked. To ensure that digital ID programs truly serve women and girls, gender considerations must be examined throughout the program journey. Privacy, portability persistence and personal are necessary elements for digital identity systems to meaningfully empower and protect individuals. Achieving the ambition of digital ID depends on shifting the locus of control away from institutions and towards the individual. This is essential to safeguarding access and opportunities, and obtaining scale.

Caribou Digital: Thanks to all our respondents, research teams and funders (Australian Aid, DfID, Omidyar Network, UNICEF, World Bank) for supporting our ID research.

ID2020: We would like to thank all our Alliance members, Advisory Committee members and Program Partners for their support.

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).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Indian and Fusion Cooking Classes

Surviving Anxiety

journey towards healing


Expertise in sustainable ICT4D for the developing world

Wait... What?

discussions on digital ethics. privacy and power

Tim Unwin's Blog

Tim Unwin's blog focusing mainly on ICT4D

ICTs for Development

Talking about information and communication technologies and socio-economic development

The ICT4D Jester

Questioning ICT for Development

%d bloggers like this: