- Blog Post
- Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.
Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to the advancement of women and U.S. foreign policy interests. This article is from Ann Cairns, President of International Markets for MasterCard and Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of Women’s World Banking.
About 2.4 billion people don’t exist.
They are alive, but invisible. Simply because they have no driver’s license or national ID card. And without one, they are excluded from some of the most essential parts of everyday life. They can’t own property. Or vote. They can’t receive government services. Or open a bank account.
And most of them are women.
For most people in the developed world, the right to an official identity is so fundamental we hardly realize we have it. But each time we flash a card or input a number, we’re essentially saying, “I exist. I belong. Please open the door.”
To mark Human Rights Day on December 10, let’s focus our attention on ensuring everyone has an ID--so they can exist.
Empowering women with forms of legal identification not only strengthens them and their families, but also can powerfully contribute to a country’s social and economic well-being. In fact, by one estimate, some 27% of GDP growth is left on the table each year due to gendered economic inequality – much of it caused by women’s lack of access to formal financial and economic networks.
A recent World Bank report, The Identification For Development (ID4D) Agenda: Its Potential For Empowering Women and Girls, notes that on virtually every global measure, women are more economically excluded than men. They are more likely than men to engage in informal employment and to work in lower-paying or unpaid endeavors. Globally, women earn 10 to 30% less on average than their male counterparts, and their workforce participation has stagnated over the past two decades.
Ensuring that women have a recognized form of identification can help address some of the root causes of this imbalance. Identification opens access to education, employment, health care, and government services, such as social protection.
A recognized identity is also critical to access to financial services. The World Bank 2014 Global Findex reports that 2 billion adults—38% percent of the world’s adult population—do not have bank accounts. The overwhelming majority live in developing nations, and most are poor and female. Surveys reveal that 18% of unbanked adults cite “lack of documentation” among the reasons they don’t engage with formal financial services. This is why government issuance of IDs linked to payment functionalities has such tremendous potential as a large-scale measure to expand financial inclusion.
Consider the ripple effect that access to these services can have. Having a legal identity allows a woman to open accounts in her own name, maintain confidentiality of her savings, and exert greater control over how her funds are spent. As the ID4D report indicates, when women control their own finances, they exert more decision-making power in their households, feel more confident, and are more active politically and socially.
Universal identification benefits businesses, too. Financial institutions that begin to serve more women clients will see gains as the women utilize multiple products from these institutions and refer others to them.
Consider, for example, Bangladesh’s garment industry, which accounts for 80% of the country’s exports, and where a full 85% of workers are young, poor, and semi-literate women. The majority don’t have a government issued identity, so less than 20% of these workers have access to bank accounts and almost all receive payment in cash. This presents a challenge for workers’ tracking and contesting payments, such as proper compensation owed for overtime work. Imagine the power these women would have if they had a recognized identity and services provided by financial institutions.
Some of the most innovative development initiatives today recognize this nexus between technology, gender, and macroeconomic health. Advances in biometric identification technology, which enable identification based on physical features such as thumbprints, are opening possibilities beyond traditional cards and documentation. Take Pakistan, where the government implemented a biometric ID system to ensure that government payments can only be collected by female beneficiaries, rather than by their male relatives. Pakistani women using the new ID cards reported having higher status and more bargaining power in their families—an outcome that also benefits their children, as studies have shown that when women control household budgets they spend more on nutritious food, education and health care.
Given the evidence, and the advances in identification technologies, the imperative for women’s access to ID is clear.
They exist. They belong. It’s time to open the door.