Why Registration and ID Are Gender Equality Issues

July 11, 2016

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.

Where are the gaps, and why do they exist?

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.

For more, check out the full event footage, and work from CGD, Data2X, and the World Bank on the topic.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.