Till the age of 31, Kaneez Bibi from Karor Pakka, district Lodhran, never felt the need to be registered as a citizen of Pakistan. She had no birth certificate and no B Form. By the time she was 31, she was already married and a mother of two girls who also, in turn, had not been registered at birth.
“Traditionally, in our village, people didn’t feel it was necessary for a woman to have a national identity card (NIC),” she says. Men are the ones who traditionally own property, get preference in education, and have ambitions to be financially independent, not women. But some ten years ago, Kaneez found an incentive to rush to get her NIC made — the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) that gave her the hope of a monthly stipend.
Today, at the age of 41, Kaneez is thankful she got the NIC, as none of the employers in Karachi want to hire her as house help till she shows them her NIC. “Once we moved to Karachi, I realised that to get my daughters admitted in school I needed to get their B Forms made.”
If women do not have an identity card, they lose out on everything, says Maliha Zia Lari, lawyer and gender activist. “Without it they are not recognised by law; they officially do not exist. It has a massive impact on the personal, the social and the institutional levels.”
Without the NIC, women cannot reach out for any legal protection, their ability do anything on their own is curtailed; they cannot hope for independence. They cannot own or inherit property, and also cannot hope for insurance or be the beneficiary of any welfare initiative, as Lari explains. “Nadra requires a family certificate now for everything, so even the husband not having an ID card poses a problem if and when the wife and children want to get registered. Child marriage cannot be mitigated if a girl without an ID card is married off as she may be a minor for all we know.”
The reasons for women lagging behind men in the race to get registered as citizens are many, and in rural areas the factors multiply. “One of the issues is fulfilling the legal requirements and documentation required for getting the CNIC. Women in rural areas often don’t have means to readily get to the towns, are illiterate, have restrictions on mobility due to traditional customs and cannot travel alone [due to security reasons or family restrictions], and male members of their families don’t always support them to get to offices of the National Database & Registration Authority (Nadra),” says Ali Akbar from the Association for Water, Applied Education & Renewable Energy (AWARE) in district Tharparkar.
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Akbar shares instances where women who did not have NICs were exploited and robbed of their rights. “Brothers and fathers who were not willing to give the rightful share of wealth to a sister or a daughter would, to close the revenue department’s record, get the tehsildar to record the statement of a couple of villagers mentioning that Mr so and so has no sister/daughters or that she has died or she is not claiming her right, and thus this male member of the family has the right to hold this property. But now the Nadra record is computerised and the woman has to be present and her statement recorded before the magistrate or registrar for any change in the legal ownership of property. The NIC, then, is a basic pillar for the empowerment of any woman.”
However, the awareness about the importance of being a registered citizen is growing among Pakistani women. Mahnaz Rahman, Director, Sindh chapter of the Aurat Foundation, says the projects by AF aim to incentivise it in many ways for women. “For example, we tell Muslim women that you need it to go for Hajj otherwise you cannot get a passport to travel for the pilgrimage. There is increased realisation about this among the lower income and middle income strata as well where the women are working to support their families,” she says.
Currently, AF is working on a project aimed at women from non-Muslim communities, encouraging them to get CNICs and in turn to exercise their right to cast the vote.
The BISP has had a positive impact in encouraging women like Kaneez to apply for NICs. “Our surveys show that numbers of women who have registered for the NIC has increased exponentially,” says Hasrat Prakash, Field Supervisor, BISP, in Mithi and Chachro, district Tharparkar, who adds that women are not just going for the ID card but are actually opting for the Smart National Identity Card (SNIC), Pakistan’s first national electronic identity card. The SNIC contains a data chip and many security features.
“BISP now requires biometric verification, which incentivised making of these SNICs. The incentive, of course, is the money stipend. The best part is that more women are now included in the voters’ list, and that more people are registering daughters at birth for the B Form, especially the eldest daughter of each family,” says Prakash.
As mobility still remains a real issue for women, facilitation efforts are being made by various organisations to help them get registered. “If in any locality we find one hundred or more women who need to get registered, Nadra’s mobile van comes there to help us and register women on the spot. There are holistic efforts by the civil society, aid agencies, Nadra and BISP among others, and the situation is comparatively better,” says Rahman, but also adds that more campaigns and efforts are needed for social mobilisation.
“Registering can be a tiresome process and if the people are not highly motivated why would they give up on a week’s daily wages to get an identity card?” says Lari, adding that “the most important thing that needs to be done is make the registration free as well as easier.”