When ID works for women: initial findings from Bangladesh

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 April 2019 we conducted fieldwork in Dhaka, Bangladesh to explore the role of ID for women and work, as part of the Commonwealth Identity Initiative. Our overall question 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 conducted focus group discussions and key informant interviews, collectively speaking with more than 80 people. We spoke with domestic workers, garment factory workers and online workers to answer these two questions. We also interviewed employers, development experts and male workers in Dhaka and its outskirts (see interview break-down at the end of the blog). Over the month of June, we will be publishing a series of more detailed blogs on each of these demographics from Bangladesh, and in September, comparative research from Sri Lanka. Here we share our overall thoughts.

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 national ID and new smart ID in Bangladesh. Source: Google

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, 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. Halima started working 9 months ago after becoming a single mother. She doesn’t think an ID will help her directly in getting out of poverty to get a better job but she knows that it has helped her get a mobile SIM and housing. She believes it will help in opening a bank account one day.

Interviewing Halima, a domestic worker, at her employer’s house (with interviewee and employer permission). Photo credit: H. Smertnik

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, wouldn’t 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.”

Garment factory workers holding their work IDs. Photo credit: H. Smertnik

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 women often means providing personal information to a male agent, which can be uncomfortable.

As a result 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.

We’re still analysing all of our 80 interviews and editing the short films from three interviewees, but what’s clear is that ID is an essential credential for women in Bangladesh to access formal work and to access formal financial services. As Ruma, a garment factory worker, says (at the start of this blog):

“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.”

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This research is funded by Australia’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade, via its support for the Commonwealth Digital ID Initiative. We would like to express our thanks to all our respondents, the DFAT iXc team, DFAT Bangladesh country office, the field research team BizInsights and Nowshin Noor, Big Blue Communication and our advisory panel for their support.

See also our partner GSMA’s report on women and digital identification in Bangladesh, Nigeria and Rwanda.

Note on our research methods:

10 expert and front line worker interviews in Bangladesh (included development organizations, labour rights NGOs, management of online platforms and factories)

10 focus group discussions with men and women (separately), a total of around 50 individuals (2 male and 8 female FGDs. Women’s groups were divided into domestic workers, factory workers and online workers)

20 individual interviews, out of which three were made into short films (we asked individuals in the focus groups if they would be willing to speak more on their experiences. Three of these interviewees were filmed and made into short films (to be shared on upcoming blogs)).