With clothes drenched in sweat and stressful eyes, 38-year-old Mohammad Sadiq stood anxiously awaiting his turn in the queue at the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) Office in tehsil Jamrud, district Khyber in the Merged Areas (MA). He was there to get a token for his pregnant wife and get her Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC) fixed on an urgent basis. This emergency arose when Sadiq was informed about the complications in his wife’s pregnancy. The hospital staff told him that his wife could receive free-of-cost treatment through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government’s universal health care coverage being offered to all permanent residents of the province. However, to access that, the patient needs to hold a valid CNIC, which Sadia did not have.

Lack of formal documentation, such as the registration of the Nikahnama, Child Registration Certificate (B-form) and government-issued identity cards for women, has been a persistent issue in the MA. Without formal governance institutions in place prior to the merger, people had to make long, arduous journeys to bigger cities to acquire legal documents. Moreover, a general lack of awareness about the significance of being a CNIC holder, especially for women, has also contributed to the issue. This was highlighted in a household survey the KP government conducted in 2020 with technical assistance from Merged Areas Governance Project (MAGP) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The survey enumerated many gender disparities, including how majority of women in the MA do not possess a CNIC owing to socio-cultural norms, among other factors. Consequently, they are not taken into account when the government attempts to plan impactful socio-economic development initiatives to benefit the larger population. Women are still unable to access and benefit from the health facilities, financial assistance, and development schemes offered by the government. This also means that they cannot exercise any rights guaranteed to them under the country’s Constitution. They cannot legally inherit property nor own any other kind of assets. They cannot file a formal complaint or access the legal justice system. 

However, things have are gradually changing on that front. Household heads and elders are realizing the importance of women in their families possessing a CNIC. “Before the merger, the idea for our women to have a CNIC seemed strange to us,” said Taj Afridi, a tribal elder from district Khyber. “Even after the merger, we didn’t feel the need to get them registered with Nadra. There was no incentive,” he said, explaining that when schemes such as the Sehat Card were introduced, people began realizing the importance of women in their households possessing a government ID so they could benefit from those initiatives. 

“The Sehat Card is contributing to women enfranchisement and enabling them to access their constitutional rights,” said Mr. Riaz Tanoli, director of Sehat Card Plus programme. “Although the original intention to get women’s CNICs made might just be to reap benefits of such initiatives, it is helping women gain an identity of their own,” he said, adding that a 14 per cent increase was observed in female enrollment in the scheme between July 2021 to November 2021, something which he attributed to a growing enfranchisement of women. 

Acquiring the CNIC has been a turning a tide in the lives of many women in the MA. “I was the first woman in my family who got this card made,” said 22-year-old Shama Afridi, who hails from Jamrud tehsil in district Khyber. “So many of my cousins and relatives got their ID cards made when they saw how I was contributing to my family financially,” she said, explaining that her husband got her CNIC made so she could access government schemes such as the Child Wellness Grant and Ehsaas Nashonuma Programme, and take better care of their children. These schemes are specifically designed for women, and can only be accessed if they possess a formal government ID. Men cannot access these schemes on women’s behalf.

“I was also able to get vaccinated against coronavirus,” Shama said, as she flipped the card in her hand. “My mother died of Covid, so I was very scared. I wanted to get vaccinated as soon as possible as I saw how women were struggling to get the vaccine since they did not have their identity card,” Shama added, sharing that though the Nadra office in Jamrud is usually flooded with people but it is especially jampacked on the day that the authority has set aside to facilitate women only. “It is amazing how much power this one card holds,” Shama added. 

“There is a growing awareness about women’s rights in the region post-merger,” said Dr Samina Afridi, senior sector specialist on gender working with UNDP’s MAGP . She said that the provincial government is working on designing schemes for women empowerment in collaboration with MAGP’s Special Emphasis Programme. “KP government’s socioeconomic development schemes are proving helpful in enabling women to acquire their CNICs, thereby exercise many of their rights,” Dr Samina explained. “These schemes are truly proving to be a gamechanger in the lives of women in the MA.”

  The writer has studied business and economics, and works in the social sector in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

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