With rigorous economic research and practical policy solutions, we focus on the issues and institutions that are critical to global development. Explore our core themes and topics to learn more about our work.
In timely and incisive analysis, our experts parse the latest development news and devise practical solutions to new and emerging challenges. Our events convene the top thinkers and doers in global development.
CGD, along with Data2X and the World Bank Group, recently hosted an event on the intersections of civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS), legal identification, and gender equality. That sounds like a mouthful, to be sure, but it all comes down to one simple idea: both men and women need to be able to prove who they are, so that they can exercise their rights as citizens and be counted by their governments. Here I’ll highlight the main points of the event’s discussion: data on the existing gender gaps in CRVS and ID, reasons behind them, and pathways forward.
But first—for those who are not already well-versed on the topic—what is CRVS, and how does it relate to legal identification? CRVS systems collect information on births, deaths, marriages, and divorces at national and sub-national levels, providing critical information that helps inform government policymaking—from determining necessary health interventions to using trends in fertility and mortality to shape education, employment, and social welfare programs. CRVS systems, by issuing birth certificates, also provide people with proof of identity, allowing them to get other forms of legal ID such as voter ID cards or driver’s licenses.
The existing gender gaps in CRVS and ID vary, with overall small to non-existent gaps between girls and boys in birth registration at aggregate, national levels, but more pronounced gaps for other forms of documentation and for certain sub-populations—depending particularly on how gender intersects with socio-economic status, urban/rural location, age, or caste, for example. Take these examples from Pakistan, discussed by Data2X consultant Jim Knowles, which show that boys and girls ages 5-17 are almost equally likely to possess a birth certificate, but women are less likely—especially in their twenties and in certain provinces—to have an ID card.
Romesh Silva, a statistician at the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, documented gender disparities (and general lacking) in death registration; in Morocco, 65 percent of male deaths and just 35 percent of female deaths are reported. Romesh’s example reflects what happens when gender inequalities intersect with geographic location. In urban centers such as Rabat or Casablanca, the disparity between men and women’s death registrations is pretty small; much of the overall disparity is explained by drastic gender gaps in rural areas.
Why do we see these types of gender gaps? In the Moroccan example specifically, Romesh hypothesized the issue of inheritance; men are more likely to have assets that can be passed down, making men’s death registration more of a priority for their family members. Unequal asset ownership, leading to unequal death registration, may then have additional, negative implications for women. And without comprehensive death registration, we don’t have a complete picture of how many women die and what is likely to cause their deaths, limiting the identification of interventions that would allow women to live longer, healthier lives.
More broadly, gaps in registration and access to ID stem from a variety of factors: complicated registration processes difficult to navigate, fees that some cannot afford to pay, and constraints on time and mobility, particularly facing women and girls. As described by panelist Tazeen Hasan, working with the World Bank Group’s Women, Business, and the Law, 10 countries still impose legal restrictions on married women trying to obtain ID that do not apply to men. These types of restrictions have real consequences; women without ID have more difficulty getting a loan, so we see linkages between gender discriminatory laws, lack of access to ID, and barriers to women’s economic empowerment.
Why do CRVS and ID matter for gender equality?
As you may have already guessed, CRVS and ID are fundamental because they give people the ability to do everything that requires proof of identity—vote, claim entitlements, inherit property, and access financial services among other things, as well as get taken into account when policymakers use national and subnational statistics to inform the design and implementation of government projects and programs. Although CRVS and ID have a vital role for both men and women, both are arguably more important for women because of the many constraints they face, including gender discrimination and increased vulnerability to early marriage, widowhood or divorce, which lack of registration and legal identity help to entrench.
Take this example from Emily Pryor, senior director of Data2X and a moderator at the event:
“There is a considerable gap in marriage data which is often ignored. We talk a lot about birth registration, ID, and death registration, but marriage registration (and marriage data) has significant implications for girls and women including: legal backing against child marriage, property and inheritance rights, full inclusion in economic and political processes, and, in some cases, the ability of women to register the births of their children. Data2X will be focusing on this issue as a critical gap which must be addressed for gender equality and women’s empowerment.”
Lucia Hanmer, lead economist in Gender and Development at the World Bank, explained in further detail the important role that CRVS and legal ID can play in preventing child marriage, stating: “Unless you can actually prove how old the girl is getting married, you can’t enforce the law.” If a girl is legally registered with the state, it makes it more difficult for her and her family to slip under the radar and circumvent laws that prohibit child, early and forced marriage (CEFM).
Where do we go from here?
Now that we understand some of the current gender gaps in CRVS and ID, and the importance of improving CRVS and ID systems, how can we make sure progress is made? Our speakers offered a variety of suggestions, including:
Maximize use of existing data, while collecting more. Romesh Silva pointed to the fact that “there’s a lot of talk about collecting new data, but there is also a huge need to process and report existing data.”
Acknowledge that CRVS and ID are complements rather than substitutes, and proceed accordingly. CGD Senior Fellow Alan Gelb discussed the possibilities for combining CRVS and ID systems, in order for the two (which often operate in separate silos) to mutually reinforce one another.
Innovate. From technologies such as biometrics to new methods like mobile registration units and other potential solutions described here, innovations that improve data collection and ID access will help to ensure universal CRVS and identification coverage.
Social psychologists discovered in the 1950s that counter-attitudinal advocacy—e.g., paying people to express a repellant view, but not quite enough to fully rationalize it—is an effective form of persuasion. So I should preface this post by noting that I recently traveled to the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai on a free economy-class airline ticket to participate in a mock debate where I was assigned, together with Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan, to argue the somewhat obnoxious position that international aid donors spend too much money on girls' schooling.
Luckily, I did not persuade anyone, including myself. There was even an audience poll before and after the debate to prove Lucy Lake of Camfed and Caroline Riseboro of Plan soundly defeated our team. But cognitive dissonance is a powerful drug. So while I still think it’s silly to argue we spend too much on girls' education, perhaps it’s reasonable to ask—as I did, not persuasively, in Dubai—whether a concern with gender equality and a cold hard look at recent data would lead anyone to put their marginal dollar into girls' schooling over, say, campaigning for gender quotas (which seem to work well in Indian politics, at least) or even subsidized childcare (which has boosted female labor force participation in Latin America).
A simple decomposition of the gender pay gap in 12 countries
Let’s start with the gender pay gap. The simple and unsurprising fact is that the gap in earnings power between men and women is enormous in many parts of the developing world, and—perhaps more surprisingly—almost none of this has to do with educational disadvantage.
Over the last several years the World Bank has launched a program, known as the STEP surveys, to collect detailed, comparable data on labor market outcomes including not just schooling but also skills. A number of things stand out from this data. (Note that the surveys only cover urban areas in each country.)
First, gender pay gaps are huge—and much bigger than often reported if we step back a bit. There is a tendency in documenting these numbers to rush ahead and focus on pay differentials conditional on being employed. Famously, American women earn 79 cents for every dollar a man earns for the same hours worked. But particularly in the developing world, the biggest source of income gaps stems from lower rates of labor force participation. Looking at the unconditional gender gaps—i.e., including all the zeros for men and women without a cash income—in urban Ghana women only earn about two-thirds of what men earn. In Colombia it’s only half, and in Sri Lanka women earn less than a third of what men earn.
Second, education explains almost none of this. We can see this using a simple Blinder-Oaxaca decomposition. This simple, descriptive technique estimates the return to schooling in observational data, then given those returns, breaks the gender pay gap into the part that can be explained by education differences between the sexes and those which remain unexplained even if we equalized schooling.
The result in the case of the World Bank data is that in only one country (Laos) does girls’ schooling deficit explain a large share of the gender pay gap. In the other 11 countries it doesn’t. In half of the countries, women’s education actually exceeds men’s on average. And in five of the remaining six countries, education explains relatively little of the earnings gap.
The data and code Blinder-Oaxaca decompositions in the graph is available here (and thanks to Lee Crawfurd for sharing earlier STEP do-files).
Even where education is (nearly) equal, nearly nothing else is
Consider the case of India. As noted in an earlier post, the government’s recent Economic Survey calculated there are still 63 million missing women, and another 22 million "unwanted women" based on the tendency of families to keep having kids if they have a girl and stop once they have a boy. Gender discrimination is acute and deeply rooted.
In their adult lives, those girls—wanted or unwanted—are more than 50 percentage points less likely than their brothers to have a job, and if they do, they’ll earn about 22 percent less. The political sphere is often no better than the economic. Just 66 of India’s 543 national legislators in the Lok Sabha are women.
But rather than girls' schooling being an obvious target for change, education indicators are actually an oasis of relative gender parity in India’s social statistics. According to official statistics, girls’ primary and lower-secondary completion is already higher than boys, and gross tertiary enrollment is at parity. Independent data collected by the NGO Pratham in the ASER surveys finds that girls at age 13 are slightly (4 percent) less likely to be able to solve the hardest questions on a simple mathematics test. While in need of redress, this 4 percent mathematics gap can hardly explain the horrific economic and social disparities we see in other domains.
In a sense, everything in life is stacked against Indian girls except school. (And kudos to the activists who made that true.)
GapGender ratio of children without siblings
India Economic Survey (2018)
World Bank, WDI
World Bank, WDI
World Bank, WDI
% enrolled, gross
World Bank, WDI
0%Math test at age 13
% who can do division
-4%Reading test at age 13
% who can read story
0%Labor force participation
World Bank, WDI
-52%Earnings conditional on employment
-22%Seats in the national parliament
By all means, let’s spend more on girls' schooling. It’s a great investment. But the reason women in Sri Lanka earn a third of men isn’t because they’re less educated. They’re not. Similarly, the reason there were more men named “Michael” at Davos this year than all women combined isn’t because there weren’t enough educated women to invite. And the reason fewer than one in five legislators in the developing world is a woman isn’t because there are no women qualified to serve. If donors spend money on girls' schooling programs thinking, “If only girls were more educated, they’d get equality” they’re fooling themselves, and implicitly accepting the status quo.
Thanks to Maryam Akmal and Divyanshi Wadhwa for excellent research assistance.