Aye Lei Tun reveals the institutionalization of patriarchal practices through the NRC application process.
In Myanmar, the National Registration Card (NRC) is an essential citizenship document required for school enrollment, travel, marriage, and fixed-asset inheritance. According to data from the 2014 Census, about one-third of the population in Myanmar does not possess any identity documentation, including NRC cards. The data also showed that women make up 54% of those lacking citizenship documents. According to data from the Department of National Registration and Citizenship under the State Administration Council (SAC), the government has recently completed 90% of the Pan Khin (Flower Farm) project by the end of May 2022, which aims to issue NRC cards for those who do not have cards yet. Over 3.4 million people without NRC cards are expected to be issued cards over the project’s duration (May 2021 to November 2022). However, applying for the NRC still presents difficulties for women, and even if they are successful, the NRC continues to validate patriarchal policies at the state level. This essay sheds light on the challenges women encounter when applying for the NRC and how the NRC legitimizes gender-based discrimination in daily life.
The 1982 Citizenship Act, created by the Burmese Socialist Programme Party, serves as the foundation for the current legal framework for citizenship documentation. This law defines “Native citizens” (မွေးရာပါနိုင်ငံသား) as those from ethnic groups such as the Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Burman, Mon, Rakhine, Shan, and others living in Myanmar before 1823 and the British invasion. Although they are not considered nationals (တိုင်းရင်းသား), legal citizens are nevertheless qualified to apply for citizenship. However, non-Buddhist minorities—including Muslims, Chinese, and even groups that the law considers indigenous, such as Kachin and Kayah—have experienced discrimination while seeking NRCs. Women have more challenges than men in NRC applications, and women from ethnic and religious minority backgrounds face multiple barriers to accessing NRCs. According to Norwegian Refugee Council’s 2018 report, women have limited knowledge and access to information about citizenship documentation. Most households prioritize applying for men’s citizenship documents, particularly when unofficial fees make it expensive for everyone at home to apply for a citizenship document. Even though an NRC cannot offer all of the rights that female citizens are guaranteed in all of Myanmar’s constitutions, not having an NRC makes life more difficult for women.
The main objective of this article is to understand the institutional barriers that women experience during the application process for an NRC, as well as the state’s institutionalized patriarchal practices affecting women through the NRC. Although the article primarily uses data from a 2018 study, the findings are still relevant today. Because the NRC application is one of the routes for corruption by state officials, the alleged success of the SAC’s Pan Khin project during the unstable post-coup period generates many doubts about its effectiveness. More precisely, the project is being implemented amid turbulent political conditions in which more than 1,037,800 people have been internally displaced across Myanmar, as of June 1, 2022, due to country-wide armed conflicts, and the recognition as citizens of nearly 890,000 Rohingya people fleeing Bangladesh remains uncertain. Moreover, even in the democratic transition period, the NRC issuing processes were criticized as being corrupt, incorrectly registering applicants’ ethnicities, whether on purpose or accidentally, and utilized as a political tool for elections. Rushing the project instead of addressing the existing problems related to citizenship documentation leads to the issues becoming more entrenched, while women are marginalized based on their ethnicity, class, gender, and religion, and also encounter institutional impediments when seeking citizenship documents and the rights granted by those documents.
This article clarifies the following issues based on data gathered in 2018: first, what NRC means to women; second, institutional and structural barriers; and third, patriarchal practices ingrained in citizenship documents.
For the 2018 study, I collected qualitative data from 56 women of different ethnicities from different regions by conducting Focus Group Discussions and In-depth Interviews. The study focused on collecting case studies which represent the experiences and perspectives of the participants. The locations of the study were selected based on geographical differences: the lower part of the country (Hpa-An and Mawlamyaing); the economic hub of the country (Yangon); the Dry Zone (Magwe and Minbu); and the upper part of the country (Myitkyina and Namatee). The participants, who were over 18 years of age were recruited from both urban and rural areas; some had successfully obtained their NRC, while others have not.
What the NRC means to women
The first part of the article mainly investigates undocumented women’s vulnerability and their motivations for seeking an NRC. First, all the interviewed participants listed traveling issues as a priority. The reason is that an NRC is also used as a travel document for boarding flights, buses, and trains as well as for overnight stays in other locations. In previous decades, women, particularly those living in rural or ethnically underrepresented areas, did not make significant efforts to obtain an NRC because there was limited need or opportunity to travel, due to inadequate road access, a lack of security and safety, or other factors including cultural barriers for rural women taking overnight trips. Even if they had to travel, they brought the ward/village administration’s letter of endorsement, in lieu of an NRC. However, women in border regions—for instance, those from the states of Mon and Kayin—had reasons other than travel for applying for the NRC, because they had to rely on border trade or move over the border to find a job. In this instance, they needed to possess the official documents that can only be applied for with an NRC, either a border pass or a permit for legal stay in another country. Before, they weren’t concerned about having formal documents because they were crossing the border illegally. However, once they became aware of the potential of trafficking of female irregular migrants, they began to favor having the NRC, which serves as a supporting document when applying for a passport or border pass.
The second justification has to do with job applications. When women applied for jobs, those who did not possess an NRC had to borrow NRC cards from close friends or relatives, listing the friend’s card number on the application. The NRC is the source that is used to confirm a cardholder’s background, age, and right to work. Most of these incidents occurred in industrialized urban areas, particularly in garment industries where a larger female labor force was needed. Employers carefully checked an applicant’s ID card to confirm their age and background after reports of labor exploitation in garment manufacturers became public in 2017, and the authorities sometimes monitored those factories due to pressure from the international community and human rights defenders. Those without an NRC often had to find cheap labor in canneries or shoe factories in the informal sector.
Accessing microloans was a further justification for an NRC card. If women did not have one, they would have to borrow money from informal lenders at an interest rate of between 10 and 20 percent. Women also sought to obtain an NRC for their schooling or to connect that card to their child’s identity card application. The matriculation exam and university entrance were both off limits to those without an identity document.
However, women from minority groups, such as Hindu or Muslim women, had different motivations for why the NRC was crucial to their ability to maintain their citizenship and avoid statelessness. They were more worried about security. For instance, one Tamil female participant noted that although Muslim and Hindu Tamils can appear quite similar, she was concerned that Tamil Hindus would be at risk in any conflict between Muslims and Buddhists. Additionally, Muslim women in the country’s center or other regions felt their citizenship was in jeopardy whenever the Rohingya crisis on the border between Bangladesh and Myanmar came up. These women were worried that nearby communities would experience more community violence and that they would become victims of the conflicts. They wanted NRCs to be able to defend their citizenship, preserve their citizenship, and exercise their rights as citizens.
Institutional and structural barriers experienced by women applying for the NRC
The second part of the study examined the institutional and structural barriers experienced by women in the ID card regime. In this case, not having adequate information, a lack of supporting documentation, having to pay unofficial fees to the immigration officers, and officers’ mistakes in data entry were the problems most experienced by women. Men also have the same experiences; however, seasonal laborers, migrant workers, rural women, and ethnic women are more vulnerable because rural women and ethnic women have a lower level of education, a lack of exposure to interacting with government authorities, and additionally, ethnic minority women experience a potential language barrier. For instance, the documents pertaining to one’s ancestors’ citizenship status as well as character reference letters from the ward and township administrations and the police are necessary when applying for an ID card. However, when the officers put pressure on the applicant to submit those documents, women retreated from the application procedure because their ancestors had not been in the habit of retaining their records. Such circumstances created an opportunity for immigration authorities to elicit bribes. In addition, men were given preference over women in a family to obtain an NRC when the family had to pay these expensive unauthorized fees to officials.
Moreover, the ward and township administration or police force were male-dominated areas; rural women were not comfortable visiting those places frequently to obtain the necessary reference letters. When the officers questioned them extensively, women were reluctant to raise objections. This was brought on by a lack of experience working with government agencies and authorities. The fact that ethnic women were reluctant to speak Burmese was an additional barrier. As a result, the immigration officer often filled out the applicants’ information on their behalf due to either a literacy issue or a linguistic problem. This situation could create a human error, such as entering an incorrect birth date, name, or ethnicity. The applicants then had to start over at the beginning of the procedure if they wished to fix those errors. In this case, women often accepted the mistake as they felt uncomfortable to re-start the process.
The chances of migrant or seasonal workers missing regularly scheduled government projects were also higher. Every two or three years, these ‘one-stop shop’ projects visit the ward or village to provide NRCs to those who do not have it. But the arrival of that project in the ward cannot be predicted, so migrants or seasonal workers might miss it. In order to obtain an NRC, they would have to visit the township immigration office separately. They were under time pressure because they could not take many vacation days from work, so when the officials took too long to issue their NRC, they had to pay unofficial fees to expedite the process. The corrupt officers more frequently victimized women in this situation since the officers were aware that women found it harder to travel or return to the office often until their card was issued.
Patriarchal practices ingrained in citizenship documents
The third section of the study investigated the patriarchal structure promoted by the NRC and its effects. Even though women might hold an NRC, this article demonstrates that several dynamics of discrimination restrict women’s ability to exercise equal citizenship rights. We can see what kinds of information need to be described in the NRC. For example, women’s employment status in the NRC and family registration list is typically listed as “dependent.” Even though the female applicants wanted to be described as “household head”, the immigration officers did not accept that request. For example, one of the interviewed participants wanted to change her role to a household head on the family registration list while her father was paralyzed. But the officer told her she was not allowed as long as her father was alive. When her father died, she tried again. But the officer only recognized that her younger brother should take that role even though he is the youngest in the family, as he was the only man. Also, in some areas, women’s names were rarely recognized in land ownership documents. According to one of the participants in Kayin State, her name was allowed to be put in the land document only along with her husband’s name, even though her husband was living away and she was leading a farming business. Despite not being legally defined, the practices of favoring male household leaders are used as unwritten rules by officials.
The dependent status in the NRC is always reflected in the status written in the family registration list. Thus, there are direct impacts on women’s economic and social lives and an indirect impact on their voting rights. For example, in the selection process of 10 household leader positions in 2012, only the heads of each family, mostly men, were invited to vote. So, when voting practices show a preference for one gender over another, women can essentially lose their right to vote, which could indirectly affect female candidates. Most voters were still men, even though the rules were altered in 2015 to allow one representative over 18 from each household to cast a ballot, whether a head of the family or not. That demonstrated how the state documents supported the idea that males should be the head of the home and women should be submissive in society.
Additionally, although the dominant Bamar ethnic group does not require women to embrace their husband’s family name upon marriage – a custom long-cited as evidence of gender equality in Myanmar – women cannot be considered to enjoy equal rights with men. For example, some ethnic groups, such as the Kachin, must still adopt the husband’s clan. Therefore, the children must adopt the name and clan of their father. Identifying and preserving the father’s ethnicity has an effect on determining the ethnicity of the offspring. The father’s ethnicity is listed first in the NRC for those of mixed ethnicity. For instance, the children are Mon+Kayin ethnically since their father is Mon and their mother is Kayin. Similarly, the offspring would be considered “Kayin+Mon” if the father is Kayin and the mother is Mon.
This case indirectly impacted the process of voting for ethnic ministers. Ethnic minorities were given one vote under the 2008 Constitution for the position of ethnic minister in each state or region. Therefore, a person of mixed ethnicity was only allowed to cast one vote in favor of the ethnic minister who represented them as the group listed first on their ID card. As a result, it appears that only the father’s ethnicity is acknowledged when choosing ethnic ministers. However, some respondents then expressed concern that as only their father’s ethnicity is recognized, their ethnic population in the state’s official documents would decline. Consequently, regarding CEDAW Article 9, this practice directly restricts the rights of women and children.
The third concern relates to the father’s name being recognized in the NRC and giving his identity card and signature more weight when children apply for their NRC. The contribution and recognition of single mothers is discouraged by this policy. This practice supports patriarchal norms because only fathers are recognized in children’s enrollment in school and their medical records from private or public institutions. Participants in the interviews asserted that this practice of favoring a father’s name when enrolling children in school or creating any registered documents resulted in more serious social problems, such as challenges with allowing single women to adopt children and difficulties with having an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, while a male partner refuses marriage or support to his child.
Card holders use their NRCs for the following purposes: traveling, applying for jobs, education opportunities, access to property, as well as a guarantee for security as a citizen. This study found that women faced more barriers than males in the NRC application procedure, even though men may have similar reasons for acquiring NRC, such as for jobs and educational purposes. For example, the Federation of General Workers Myanmar’s recent report in August 2022 indicated that the Zhejiang Tongli Clothing factory dismissed about 100 workers whose NRC registered Regional codes were 5 (for Sagaing Region) or 8 (Magwe Region), as these regions have been leading the anti-military armed resistance among the Bamar-majority regions since the coup. The military junta has forced people not to employ or accommodate those coming from these regions. Men from those regions have encountered military tyranny, but women’s suffering is two-fold, including both limited job opportunities and security concerns. This trend has increased the likelihood that female garment factory workers from Sagaing or Magwe regions will need to pay to rent or ‘borrow’ NRC cards from women from other regions in order to work.
In this regard, women’s barriers to access to citizenship documentation are not only concerned with the state’s patriarchal institutionalized practices but also intersectional challenges related to class, religion, and ethnicity. First, migrant female workers and marginalized women such as Hindu and Muslim women, as well as illiterate women, have more difficulties acquiring the national ID card. Secondly, the most challenging factors women have encountered in the NRC application process include lack of adequate capacity in dealing with government officials, lack of education, lack of adequate information and supporting documents. Furthermore, language barriers also create limitations for non-Bamar ethnic minority women. Third, the practice of recognizing only fathers’ names and fathers’ ethnicity discriminates against women, particularly violating CEDAW’s Article (9). In addition, single mothers are disempowered because they are not adequately recognized. The status of women defined as “dependent” on their ID cards thus has negative impacts on women’s social, economic, and political life. For example, women have some limitations in applying for land ownership, voting, or running in an election because they are defined as “dependent”. Based on the findings, the study puts forward the following recommendations with the objective of giving women the ability to fully enjoy full citizenship rights by eliminating all limitations.
- The state should establish a women-friendly system at government offices such as the immigration, police, and township administrative offices. A women-friendly system means appointing female staff and officers to assist the female applicants in a friendly manner.
- The state needs to recognize self-determination with regard to ethnicity. This would allow children who are of mixed ethnicity to have the choice of whatever ethnicity they would like to identify with. Everyone needs to determine which ethnicity they represent to cast a vote for the ethnic minister position.
- The practice of recognizing only the father’s name on the national ID card and different kinds of application forms (including job applications and school enrollment) should be eliminated.
- Occupational status should not be included on the national ID card, or on the family registration list; or women should be given the right to define their own occupational status.
Women will have to overcome obstacles in obtaining an NRC as well as limitations to enjoy the same rights as males as citizens as long as institutional impediments and practices of legitimizing patriarchy through NRC are not eradicated. The democratic forces working to create a federal democracy after a dictatorship should also think about the best way to address the ethnicity issue on the NRC and the wider system that preferences the father’s ethnicity.
Aye Lei Tun is currently working as a researcher on gender- and media-related studies for Burma-based international NGOs. In 2021, she enrolled in the PhD program in Political Science at McMaster University, Canada. She is also a published author, with a pen name Thawda Aye Lei and recently, she has published four novels and two short story collections.