LAHORE: After three years of repeated attempts to get her Digital National Identity Card, Rubina – a woman from the Pakistani city of Karachi – decided to fight in court with a historic victory.
Until then, Pakistanis could not get a Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC) without presenting their father’s identity card – an impossibility for many like Rubina, who was raised by a single mother.
The card is important for voting, accessing government benefits including public schools and health care, opening a bank account or applying for jobs.
“I would go there, and I would be asked to bring my father’s card,” Rubina, 21, said.
“My mother raised me after my father abandoned us shortly after I was born – so how can I pass on his credentials?”
Rubina’s frustration prompted her to file a petition in the High Court of Sindh province, which ruled in November that the government agency that oversees the CNIC should issue her a card based on her mother’s citizenship record.
For Rubina, the decision meant she could apply to take over her mother’s job as an attendant at the state education department when she retired.
More broadly, her case has effectively excluded children of single mothers from the ID card scheme, said Haris Khaliq, secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
“Without CNIC, no public service can be accessed or any banking transaction can be done,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“In short, one has no rights as a citizen.”
The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), the agency in charge of CNIC, has said it is trying to reach out to people who have been excluded so far.
“The government has a clear policy that people who are going to be registered in the database will not be excluded,” said Salman Sufi, head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Reforms Unit, which oversees the implementation of the federal policy.
Established in 2000, NADRA has maintained the country’s biometric database and issued about 120 million CNICs to 96 percent of adults in the country of about 212 million people.
Each card contains a 13-digit unique ID, the person’s photo, their signature and a microchip containing their iris scan and fingerprint.
Yet millions of people in Pakistan, including women, transgender people, migrant workers and nomadic communities, are still without a CNIC.
According to the World Bank, more than 1 billion people worldwide have no way to prove their identity.
While governments around the world are adopting digital ID systems they say are improving governance, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights has said they exclude marginalized groups and should not be a precondition for accessing social protection schemes.
A study conducted by the HRCP last year on migrant workers in Karachi found that women are more likely to not have a CNIC, putting them at risk of destitution if their husband dies or leaves the family.
Children whose parents are not registered are particularly vulnerable, as they cannot obtain a birth certificate and are at risk of trafficking and forced labor, the HRCP said.
He recommended more mobile registration units and female staff to help register vulnerable groups, as well as simpler procedures and less stringent documentation requirements, which also make it harder for immigrants to apply.
Only half of some 2.8 million Afghan refugees who have lived in Pakistan for decades are registered with the government. Pakistan also has a large population of unregistered Bengali, Nepalese and Rohingya migrants.
“Majority of Pakistanis of Bengali origin do not have CNICs and are living like aliens and illegal immigrants in their own country,” community leader Sheikh Feroze said at a recent rally to demand CNICs.
NADRA – which has also helped set up digital ID systems in Bangladesh, Kenya and Nigeria – said it has a dedicated registration department “especially for women, minorities, transgender and unregistered persons”.
The agency said it has several women-only centers, especially in border provinces, to “overcome socio-cultural barriers for women who hesitate to deal with male employees” and prioritizes senior citizens and the disabled.
“Everyone will be given an opportunity to register. No group will be excluded based on ethnicity, race or religion,” said Sufi from the Strategic Reforms Unit.
Privacy breach is a threat for those who have CNIC.
The CNIC database is accessed by around 300 public and private service providers, from the tax department to the Election Commission to mobile service providers.
There have been multiple data breaches, which point to inadequate security, said Nighat Dad, an attorney and executive director of the nonprofit Digital Rights Foundation.
“Women often complain of harassment after their personal information is leaked and weapons are used to blackmail them,” she said.
“Since there is no data protection law, there is no liability even if personal data like phone number is leaked,” she added.
Data breaches that expose personal data are particularly dangerous for vulnerable groups such as journalists, activists and religious and ethnic minorities, said Haroon Baloch, senior program manager at digital rights group Bytes for All.
He said, “Citizens are not aware of the use of their biometric data. “Personal data linked with biometric IDs can be misused, with serious privacy implications not only for the individual but also for their family.”
NADRA officials have denied allegations of data compromise, saying the database has a multi-layered security system “which makes hacking impossible.”
For Rubina, who could not even get the COVID-19 vaccine without a CNIC, just getting an ID is half the battle won.
“I am happy that others will not suffer like me,” she said.