When ID works for women: summary findings from Bangladesh (11/12 blog on research for Ausaid from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka)

Hélène Smertnik and Savita Bailur

“Before we didn’t have any freedom and respect. With an ID, I can work and get the money and freedom to spend for the family. I feel much better about it now that I am earning and it is not just my husband supporting us.” — Ruma, garment factory worker

In 2019, we conducted fieldwork in Dhaka, Bangladesh to understand the role of ID for women and work, with the support of Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and as part of the Commonwealth Digital Identity Initiative. Our research sought to explore:

  1. The potential role of ID in enabling women to access a wider variety of income generating opportunities
  2. The potential role of ID in enabling women to retain and control their own income

We collectively spoke with more than 80 people (mostly women), including domestic workers, garment factory workers and online workers to answer these two questions. We also interviewed employers in these three sectors and development experts in Dhaka and its outskirts (see interview and focus group breakdown at the end of the blog).

Here we share our summary findings of that research.

More detailed blogs on the role of ID for women in Bangladesh are available on Caribou Digital’s Women, Work and ID page.

A focus group discussion with female garment factory workers. Photo credit: BizInsights

ID holds great value in Bangladesh … for the most part

The Bangladesh national ID was originally a paper-based laminated card issued as part of voter registration in 2006 to everyone over 18. As a result, many of those we interviewed used “voter ID” and “national ID” interchangeably — the voter ID has become the national ID. For the past three years — since 2016 — new smart IDs with chips and biometrics have been issued. This has led numerous people to exchange/upgrade their paper-based national ID for the “smart ID”.

The value of ID for respondents is very clear. It was cited as critical by our respondents:

  • For children’s education — to enroll children at school
  • To deliver a child at the hospital
  • To travel outside the home and not be bothered when you get home late at night
  • To bury your family members (you need your ID and their ID)
  • To rent a house, in particular “in better areas”
  • To buy land
  • To open a bank account or a formal savings account
  • To buy a SIM card
  • To be recognised as a citizen of Bangladesh and not be considered a foreigner/ refugee

At the same time, the importance of ID varied according to the job women were looking for or held, as explored next.

“Better”, safer jobs inevitably require ID

While ID was deemed essential to access numerous services, we were interested in diving deeper into exploring whether ID increases access to a wider variety of income generating opportunities and allows women to retain, control and grow their own income. On this, our findings were mixed.

We found there is a spectrum of ID requirements: the more formal the job (i.e. with a contract, better standards and benefits including paid leave), the more likely the need for ID. The experiences of domestic, factory and online workers illustrated that spectrum.

Domestic workers are less likely to view ID as essential to accessing work

Domestic workers were the largest demographic in our sample who did not hold national IDs. For example, Shilpi, a domestic helper who works in four homes has not yet found the time to obtain her ID. Shilpi has reasoned that as it is not currently required for her do her job, she cannot justify the effort and time off work to obtain her ID.

ID is required if women want to increase employment opportunities by working online

On the other hand, Jesmin, a beautician who works through the online platform Sheba xyz, would not have been able to work through the platform without an ID. To verify her identity, Jesmin had to upload her National ID and two photos to join the platform. Without this verification of identity, accessing the opportunities on the platform is not possible. She encouraged her colleague to join her online business but the colleague couldn’t justify going through the hassle of getting an ID, so she is only able to work in beauty salons — with lesser pay.

ID affords access to better benefits and wages in compliance factories

Factory workers were aware of the need to have an ID to work in compliance factories and have the chance to get better pay and more benefits than in non-compliant, non-formal factories. Moushumi, a garment factory employee we interviewed, said: “We won’t be able to find jobs anywhere without an ID card. Nobody will want to hire us because they can’t trust who we say we are. You need it to open a bank account, then you will need it to join a union and learn about your rights at work. You need it if something happens to you, and you want the benefits to be passed to your family.”

ID is an essential credential for financial inclusion, but not sufficient

The connection between ID and financial inclusion is less direct. Respondents were hesitant to open a bank account or mobile account due to a variety of reasons like wanting easy access to cash and feeling like they wouldn’t have access with an account. Some felt they didn’t have enough to save, or were not comfortable with their digital literacy skills to use mobile money. Additionally, the process of opening an account as a woman often means providing personal information to a male agent, which can be uncomfortable.

Because of these obstacles, women often either use their husbands’ accounts or register their SIMs under male members of the household. This brings up the question if these women would have true ownership over their finances if they used mobile money — on the contrary, they may become more dependent on their husbands. Having an ID is the critical first step to financial inclusion, but without facilitated procedures and education on the benefits of having their own accounts, just having an ID is not sufficient for women to feel confident opening accounts.


Follow Caribou Digital on Twitter for more updates on their research.

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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