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Who are you? The gendered nature of the identity conundrum

A woman is never her own person. First, she is her father’s and later, she is expected to be her husband’s. This lack of a defined individual identity for women rooted in both culture and religion is the source of the many challenges that women face in acquiring formal identification. The issue with gendered problems is that while they may seem shallow, the effects of this subtle dehumanisation often have overt and considerable socio-economic consequences.

When the Nigerian government announced in December 2020 that it would block mobile numbers of people who failed to link their National Identity Numbers (NIN) to their SIM cards, they made arguments of the impact of fast-tracking registration – improved security and deeper inclusion. But the directive was met with push-back, and rightfully so. The strict and largely unfeasible timeline set by the government means that it would, at least in the short term, penalise many low-income people, who will not only be unable to meet the unrealistic deadline but considerably more impacted by a disconnection when this happens.

Nigerian women are currently more likely to be without a NIN and will make up a sizeable portion of those who might be affected by this endeavour to formalize their identity since even on an informal basis, their identity has been called into question.

The importance and the challenges of identification for women

The gender disparity in identity is not purely a Nigerian problem. According to the World Bank’s Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative, the majority of the estimated 1 billion people without an official means of identification are women – the majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa. It is easy to ignore the gender disparity in securing a means of identification when we lack a firm grasp of the value women contribute to the economy and how barriers to identification have significant effects on the economy. According to research from McKinsey, Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP) could grow by 23 percent – or $229 billion – by 2025 if women participated in the economy to the same extent as men. Identification is fundamental in ensuring this participation.

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Ideally, acquiring a NIN should be an uncomplicated exercise – in fact to encourage mass adoption, it needs to be relatively straightforward. This assumption disregards the challenges which exist in Low-Income Countries (LIC) like Nigeria. Some of the requirements for enrolling for a NIN serve as barriers for vulnerable people, particularly women. Ironically, enrolling for NIN requires you to have supporting documents which often take the form of other identification documents that many women do not have, such as driver’s licence, birth certificates or international passports.

Gender-specific barriers to identification are upheld by societal norms such as the expectation for women to remain indoors to take care of the home, thus impeding their ability to actually go to registration centres, or the provision of certain documentation that might require them to obtain permission from their fathers or their husbands, depending on existing laws. At the same time, Nigeria has over 2.7 million people living in IDP camps and a large portion of them are women due to the unequal impacts of conflict. IDPs are often forgotten in the broader conversation about identification and are likely to be out of the loop regarding government directives that exist on identification. More importantly, they are less likely to possess any identity documentation required as they have been torn away from their homes.

These challenges disproportionately stifle women and consequently stifle the country’s economic power. A streamlined national identification system is a fundamental path towards achieving sustainable development outcomes.

SDG 5 which outlines the pursuit of attaining gender equality is at the heart of ensuring that we place a more comprehensive focus on bridging the gender gap. Identification systems are power poverty alleviation tools because, essentially, they uncover people. In Nigeria, over 83 million people are living in poverty and identifying every single person who makes up the 83 million is one step towards providing them with life-saving services from health to finance. For women, this is even more important as there exists a feminization of poverty across the world and especially here in Nigeria, the poverty capital of the world. The current economic realities driven by COVID-19 have made poor women even poorer and despite the good intentions of the Nigerian government, distributing relief transfers safely and securely has been a challenge. A robust and inclusive national identification database in a country as populous as Nigeria will improve the efficiency of such large-scale relief measures. India, the second-most populous country in the world, uses digital infrastructure that is accessible for individuals – many of them women – via their national registration numbers to dispense cash transfers.

There are no two ways about it, access to identification is pivotal for achieving financial inclusion outcomes. On average, Nigeria is yet to achieve its Financial Inclusion target of 92 percent and in line with general trends, women are more likely to be excluded than men. The Global Findex Database reported gender gap increased from 7 percent in 2011 to 24 percent in 2017. A more recent 2019 survey in Nigeria, assessing women’s financial inclusion, conducted by EFInA, showed that 36 percent and 24 percent of the female and male population are financially excluded, respectively, placing the relative financial inclusion gender gap at 20-30 percent. This apparent gap is linked to the fact that while financial inclusion objectives are being met, measures to enhance these objectives are not gender-inclusive, thus leaving women behind. Where women are unable to obtain relevant identification requirements, they are also unable to obtain loans or other financial services capable of boosting their economic potential. As a result, many female entrepreneurs are unable to support and grow their business because they lack the necessary financial support they need.

Are there any solutions?

Resolving these challenges requires concerted efforts and firm commitments from the government. While addressing the cultural elements may require more long-term emphasis, there are approaches that can mitigate the limiting impacts of these barriers in the short to medium term. Technology can also make enrolment for NIN easier, by introducing alternative means of enrolment; for example, via mobile phones and USSD we can reduce the logistical challenges affecting female enrolment. It will also require engaging local leaders to support sensitization efforts, situating registrations centres closer to vulnerable groups and lowering the registration requirement standards.

There is also a need to build trust in government institutions and policies, for many vulnerable women who have felt the brunt of poor governance. This is likely the case for women in IDP camps many of whom have felt neglected by the government. Conscious sensitization in these contexts and continued partnerships with global initiatives, such as Identification for Development (ID4D), promote opportunities to provide vulnerable women with access to foundational legal identification. In the same vein, partnerships with private sector-led organizations working directly with women in the vulnerable category provide an opportunity to record quick wins as it relates to cultural barriers, misinformation, and other limitations.

Women are perceived to need an identity much less than men are. This ideology undercuts the major challenge in providing unique identification to the millions of undocumented adult women. All hope is not lost. In countries like Afghanistan, where until recently a woman could legally not get an ID unless she was accompanied by a male relative, progress has been made. Several restrictive barriers have been loosened, making it easier for women in the country to formalize their identity. Women constitute approximately half of the population and cannot be disregarded in policymaking and implementation if we are to achieve gender parity, and policies that do not apply a gender lens in the design phase inevitably result in exclusion for millions of women.

Akpadia is founder of Rendra Foundation, a for-purpose organisation that promotes inclusive finance for low-income women.

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