“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 (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.

August 2016 update and girls’s use of mobile internet in Delhi and Lagos (research for Standard Chartered)


Like many others (so I’ve heard/seen!), I started this blog with good intentions but immediately got waylaid with a bunch of interesting research and teaching. A mid-year resolution is to commit to writing something at least once a month! One of the challenges is that often we are working on interesting projects and not only get fully immersed, but can’t share until official publication – an example is the fascinating work we at Caribou Digital were doing for most of this year with the Indian Institute of Technology, Bangalore and funded by Omidyar Network on low-income user experiences of obtaining and using identity credentials (including Aadhaar) in India.  Together with Storythings and Langtons, we published a monthly update on, but more on that when the full research is out in October. Lots of useful implications (we hope!) for policy-makers and designers of ID systems on privacy, agency, and dignity, particularly for women, ethnic groups, those with disabilities and others.

In addition to the Identities research with the great Caribou team, I continued to teach MC405: Policy and Practice in ICTs and Development with Jane Vincent and Claire Milne in the Media and Communications Department at the London School of Economics, with (as always) committed and engaged students, and supervised summer dissertations at both LSE and the University of Manchester. Also prepared a policy document for UN Women with Claudia Abreu Lopes on the use of big data for evaluating the gender element of the SDGs (on the basis of which we have been recommissioned to work with UN Women’s Evaluation Office, Global Pulse and Twitter), co-wrote a chapter on inclusivity in crowdsourcing for IDRC and am in the process of co-editing a special issue on Gender and ICTs for the journal Information Technology and International Development with Silvia Masiero and Jo Taachi (we’ve had some good contributions and in final review stages). There might be other things which I’ve forgotten, but it was a bit of spinning plates in the last year (all fun and learning!).

The use of mobile internet* by girls in Lagos and Delhi


Focus group at one of the Standard Chartered Goal sites in Lagos (Photo: the girls and Adeshola Komolafe; Permissions obtained)

The one project I can share on more is a study for Standard Chartered looking at the use of mobile internet by girls aged 12-24 from low income families in Lagos and Delhi. Standard Chartered commissioned Caribou mainly to understand if there was an opportunity to bring their Goal Programme (teaching life skills to young girls in twenty markets) online.  However, as experienced ICT researchers and practitioners (!) our first recommendation was not to jump online but to take the time to understand more of the dynamics of online usage by the girls.  Between April and June 2017, Sudha Vijay and I explored issues of access, privacy and family dynamics, helped by field researchers Ananya Basu (in Delhi) and Adeshola Komolafe (in Lagos) who conducted focus groups in New Delhi and Lagos (in total of 50 girls, roughly 25 in each site), as well as interviewed family members and Goal staff. We also built on our Digital Days methodology, piloted in a previous Caribou project in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda – what does a girl’s digital day online look like – what does she access, why, what is the sequence of cycling through websites/apps, why and so on?

What we found

Some of the findings of the Standard Chartered study were specific to Goal and the girls’ experience of it, so that’s not what I’d like to discuss here (although you can read the study here). Rather, what struck Sudha and myself was that while girls long to (and often do) have access to affordable smartphones, there is a major gap in

a) in accurate self-reporting of use (i.e. they often say they don’t use phones but use those of friends/parents/brothers) and

b) unsurprising but still worrying, there is a huge lack of awareness of privacy online (at least with those we talked to)

There’s a real lack of ownership in who educates on online safety and privacy or who girls can talk to for advice (widely reported in literature but still a concern – in the report we outline the main researchers and practitioners working in this area, especially Girl Effect, UNICEF, United Nations Children’s Fund, Global Kids Online, Intel and many others).

The other two emerging findings which seemed important to us were

c) how little parents know about their children’s use online. For example, in an interview with Richu ((pseudonym), a mother in Delhi, she was adamant “my girls don’t do anything wrong” on their phones. But when Ananya, the interviewer asked the mother more she said “I don’t know because I don’t use the net”. Similarly, in another interview with Ashok, a father, he said:

Ashok: No, no my children don’t engage in any wrong activities [when the question was actually about them being have experienced any harassment online].

Ananya: Do you think that your children use the phone too much?

Ashok: No they use it when required.

Yet further along in the exchange, the interviewer asked:

Ananya: Do your children play on the phone?

Ashok: I wouldn’t know if they do.

Similarly, in an interview with a mother, Mrs. Anifalaje in Lagos, we heard:

Adeshola: Why do you think it’s good for her [daughter] to be online?

Mrs. Anifalaje: Because the assignments they give them sometimes require that they research online. I do give them my phone is such cases to assist with their assignments. I don’t have any fear of the children been corrupted through the internet because we are Christians.

Adeshola: Why do you think it’s important for people to share information online?

Mrs. Anifalaje: We learn from this information every day. For example, on WhatsApp, information helps us to know the things happening out there.

If parents don’t know or understand the online space, or put the onus on girls to be the “good girls”, this poses real challenges for young girls being online so fast.

d) The role of brothers, especially in India, was critical

In the absence of parental knowledge, in Delhi particularly (not so much the case in Lagos), the role of brothers or friend’s brothers as gate-keepers (enablers as well as disruptors) for the girls going online was prevalent. Most brothers did not want to share their phones or stopped girls from going online, but Pushpa, 16, says:

“My brother gifted the phone to me and taught me how to use it. It is important to make users aware … he thinks that since he has given me the phone it is his duty to make me aware of the important things because at times people might be led astray…so he taught me everything, Facebook, Hike, Whatsapp … like a parent.”



Focus group at one of the Standard Chartered Goal sites in New Delhi (Photo: Savita Bailur; Permissions obtained)

What this means

The Standard Chartered research was a small study, but it raises questions which arise again and again of girls in low income contexts online – how do they learn about use and safety?  If SDG 5 – one of the seventeen sustainable development goals – aims to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”, and 5.b has a goal of “Enhancing the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women”, how far are we in terms of safeguarding and empowering young girls in their access of mobile internet? (and we can’t argue that this is an irrelevant question – as we found, many girls underplay their access to smartphones). While we know many smart folks are working in this area, it’s a real call to governments/ministries, NGOs, private sector organizations and donors to consider how young girls learn these skills. We’d love to keep working in this area.


*though as Jonathan Donner would say, there is no such thing as A “mobile internet” but many internets

Note from Sudha Vijay:

Standard Chartered Beyond Girls’ Education Summit

I was fortunate enough to be able to present our research at the Standard Chartered Beyond Girls’ Education Summit in Johannesburg and sit in on several discussions surrounding girls empowerment in low-income countries (of which ICTs were only a part). The privacy and safety of girls online were raised as issues by all, (especially Girl Effect)  but one of my concerns was that there’s still an emphasis on access, rather than safety. In my humble opinion, participants at the conference were more interested in learning how their initiatives could be brought online without greater thought to the underlying vulnerabilities and risks they really pose. In creating any online initiative it is imperative to educate both the platform designers, users (not always the same) – as well as the gatekeepers – on what it means to “be online” not just to learn key digital literacy skills. More policy-focussed research is necessary in this area, especially given the current technological era we are thriving in.

Call for Special Issue on Gender, Mobiles and Mobile Internet (2016)

I’m excited to be co-editing a special issue on Gender, Mobile and Mobile Internet: Opportunities and Challenges in Mobile-Centric Use with Silvia Masiero and Jo Tacchi for the open-access journal Information Technology and International Development (USC Annenberg Press). Details below (pdf version here). Please consider submitting and sharing the call! Deadline for abstracts  30 October 2016 (email s.bailur at


Mobile access, as well as mobile Internet access, is increasing exponentially around the world (World Bank 2012). A number of studies already show engaged use of both by and for women, from using mobiles to supporting oneself financially (Tacchi & Chandola 2016) to mutual support in healthcare (Chib & Chen 2011), finance (Wallis 2011), civic technology (Rumbul 2016) and education (Balasubramanian et al. 2010). Reflecting on the implications of mobile access, a point of discussion emerges: do the particular affordances of mobile, increasingly dissociated from place and context (Donner 2015), have the potential to affect women (for many of whom mobiles are the first and foremost ICT device to be used) disproportionately to men?

Anne (21, living in Limuru, Kenya, one of the participants in our Digital Lives research). See our Caribou Digital work for more.

Other questions arise in conceptualizing gendered affordances of mobile. In particular, limited gender-disaggregated data are available on mobile and mobile Internet access, which limits our capability to draw inferences. Poor access may be the result of a number of issues: cost; male control of finances as well as use; literacy and digital literacy; and fear of use. For example, Potnis (2015) finds women in rural Maharashtra, India, are afraid of being harassed or of “breaking” the phone by mistake. Schoemaker (2015) elaborates on cultural constraints affecting the use of mobile Internet in Pakistan (“digital purdah”). Further research brings forth restricted agency – female street traders in Kampala switch off phones in the presence of men to preserve the status quo (Masika & Bailur 2015), and Vietnamese brides in Singapore use mobile Internet within confines only (Thi Hoan et al. 2016).

This Special Issue seeks to focus on three specific areas with a gender lens:

  • Theories and frameworks of gender empowerment through mobile phones, e.g. Sen’s capability (see Thi Hoan et al., 2016), Alcoff’s theory of positionality (Wallis 2011) and so on. What examples of empowerment do we see and how can we theorize these, whether selling through WhatsApp (Venkatraman 2015) or self-educating through mobile YouTube (Caribou Digital 2015)?
  • Conceptualizing “grey areas” of empowerment, e.g. poor regulation when conducting micro-work (Harris 2014), negotiating sex work (Tacchi & Chandola 2016) or using images or videos for it (Veena 2007) as well as harassment (WWWF 2015).
  • Nuances and intersectionality – e.g., who are the intermediaries (male and female) who enable or constrain women’s access? What role does intersectionality (class, caste, race, age, location etc) play? Can we draw upon granulated data to extend and unpick binary male/female discussions? What tactics of agency do we see? Sharing devices may be one, but is problematic (see Burrell 2010).

Author submission instructions

Prepare your manuscripts according to the following guidelines after your abstract is approved by the guest editors:

  1. Abstracts are a maximum 175 words.
  2. Both abstract and keywords must be included in the manuscript.
  3. Papers must be single-column, 12 pt. Times Roman font, 1.5 spacing
  4. Papers should be a maximum 8,900 words (all-inclusive).
  5. Papers are anonymized including in “Properties.”
  6. Papers are formatted according to APA 6th edition guidelines.
  7. When your paper is ready, submit it directly to the ITID platform at

Papers that do not comply with guidelines will be immediately returned to the author(s).

Important Dates

30 October, 2016                              Deadline for abstract to Savita Bailur at s.bailur at

30 January, 2017                               Deadline for manuscript to be submitted to the ITID platform at


Balasubramanian, K., Thamizoli, P., Umar, A., & Kanwar, A. (2010). Using mobile phones to promote lifelong learning among rural women in Southern India. Distance Education, 31(2), 193-209.

Burrell, J. (2010). Evaluating shared access: Social equality and the circulation of mobile phones in rural Uganda. Journal of Computer‐Mediated Communication,15(2), 230-250.

Caribou Digital (2015). Digital lives in Ghana, Kenya & Uganda. Report for the MasterCard Foundation, November 2015.

Chib, A., & Chen, V. H. H. (2011). Midwives with mobiles: A dialectical perspective on gender arising from technology introduction in rural Indonesia. New Media & Society, 13(3), 486-501.

Donner, J. (2015). After access: Inclusion, development, and a more mobile Internet. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Harris, M. (2014). Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workers protest: “I am a human being, not an algorithm”. The Guardian, 3 December 2014.

Rumbul, R. (2016). ICT and Citizen Efficacy: The Role of Civic Technology in Facilitating Government Accountability and Citizen Confidence. Proceedings of the IFIP World Information Technology Forum.

Tacchi, J., & Chandola, T. (2015). Complicating connectivity: Women’s negotiations with smartphones in an Indian slum. Routledge Handbook of New Media in Asia, 179-188.

Thi Hoan, N., Chib, A., and Mahalingham, R. (2016). Mobile phones and Gender Empowerment: Enactment of ‘Restricted Agency’. Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development, Ann Arbor (Michigan), 3-6 June 2016.

Veena, N. (2007). Revisiting the prostitution debate in the technology age: women who use the Internet for sex work in Bangkok. Gender Technology and Development, 11(1), 97-107.

Venkatraman, S. (2015). Women Entrepreneurs and WhatsApp. UCL WhywePost study.

Wallis, C. (2011). New media practices in China: Youth patterns, processes, and politics. International Journal of Communication, 31(5): 406-436.

World Bank (2012). Maximizing Mobile.World Bank Report on Information and Communication Technologies, November 2012.

World Wide Web Foundation (2015). Women’s Rights Online: Translating Access into Empowerment.

“You can be creative about something, then you post it, then people will like it and then you write there your phone number and you get rich” (research for Mastercard Foundation from Ghana, Kenya and Uganda)

What are the internet-enabled or dataphone uses of young men and women ages 18-25 living on under $2 a day?Historically, women have always tended to do more piecemeal work – which fits around home and childcare – than men have, whether in “developed” or “developing countries”*. How do internet-enabled phones (or smartphones) fit in here? What kinds of quick, on the move income generation can these devices enable for women? And what implications does this have? We (Caribou Digital) recently did a big research study on digital lives” in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda for MasterCard Foundation as a client. I wrote another blog on it here. Our main question was – what are the internet-enabled or dataphone uses of young men and women ages 18-25 living on under $2 a day? (I’m trying to avoid the term smartphone again as that implies something top of the range, hi-tech).

Continue reading ““You can be creative about something, then you post it, then people will like it and then you write there your phone number and you get rich” (research for Mastercard Foundation from Ghana, Kenya and Uganda)”

Summer dissertations … here we go (thoughts supervising at LSE)

Dissertation supervisionLooking forward to supervising my first MSc dissertations in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE (previously, I supervised on the MSc Management of Information Systems and Digital Innovation in the Department of Management and even before that at the Global Development Institute in Manchester). If students initially seem intimidated with the prospect of writing 10,000 words, I always tell them it’s an amazing and unique experience, pretty much a carte blanche to write objectively and critically, without having to toe an organizational line (like this blog, I guess, but with more references!). My ten dissertation students this year have varied and fascinating topics, from analyzing Prime Minister Modi’s communications strategy, to the localization of a Chinese reality TV format in Korea, the political economy of media industries and the political identity of Democrats Abroad in London during the US Primary Elections.

Continue reading “Summer dissertations … here we go (thoughts supervising at LSE)”