How many more Nodis before we start taking false identification papers seriously?
Last year, 13-year-old Nodi was sent to Saudi Arabia as a migrant worker with a passport that falsely stated her age to be 27. On October 31, 2020, she came home to Bangladesh in a coffin. Her mother alleged that there were marks of torture on her body, and that her employer had started beating her from the first day of work, but she received no support from the recruiting agency that sent her there.
Nodi’s distressing story once again shone a spotlight on the dangers being faced by female migrant workers from Bangladesh. This is not the first time we have heard of a case like this. On the first day of this month, The Daily Star reported that 473 Bangladeshi women have returned dead from the Middle East in the last five years. Thanks to many reports and documentaries on this issue, we are now well aware of the horrors that women face as modern day slaves in Middle Eastern households.
While the host countries must do better to protect our migrant workers employed within their borders, we must also recognise how we as a nation are failing to protect girls like Nodi. Poor families are forced to make these risky choices for their daughters, crooked middlemen cheat them, agents refuse to take responsibility for their clients after migration, and the existing regulatory system is clearly not enforced. However, there is a particular governance loophole that we often overlook, which had also contributed to our failures.
We have all seen the picture of Nodi on our newsfeed. She was obviously a child. How then, was she sent abroad for work? Why did nobody notice or flag the fact that Nodi’s age was grossly misrepresented during the standard verification process of issuing a passport, and during the entire process of issuing paperwork and completing all migration formalities? Immigration officers in Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia also did not pay attention to the obvious anomaly between her appearance and her age as written on the passport. Nodi’s agents completed several formal steps and procedures of migration using her falsified age and trafficked her through the legal channels, making it hard to believe that this was a random mistake.
In Bangladesh, changing our official age is common practice. This is so common that “what is your official age” and “what is your real age” are distinctly different questions to us. As researchers, we always ask both questions in our field surveys, knowing that the answers to the two questions are likely be different. Nowadays, the real age, NID age, passport age and birth certificate age may all be different, depending on what purpose each document was issued for. We accept boyosh komano (reducing age) as a harmless violation of the law because its purpose often appears to be benign, for example, extending the time for applying to government jobs.
But this apparently harmless practice clearly has many consequences, some of which can be outright dangerous for vulnerable people like Nodi. When the official age of a girl is increased to show that she is legally old enough to get married or work abroad, overlooking this discrepancy in age can increase child marriage and trafficking.
Ideally, a birth registration document should be issued when an individual is born, but for various reasons, this is uncommon in Bangladesh. People usually obtain identification documents when they need one. In a nationally representative rural survey in 2019 done by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), respondents were asked why they applied for birth registration documents. The answers ranged from “for getting married”, “registering for board examinations”, “for availing social safety net allowance” to “applying for NID and/or passport”. Obviously, the age we put on a formal document depends on the purpose of getting that document. It was found that only 19 percent of the 9,942 individuals with NIDs had their correct date of birth on the card. For 36 percent, the NID age was lower than actual reported age. For the remaining 45 percent, their NID age was higher than their reported actual age. So our traditional notion of boyosh komano seems to be less popular now. Rather there is a tendency for increasing the reported age, as in the case of Nodi.
In the BIGD data, there were over 3,000 individuals between the age of 14 and 18 years, but only 29 of them had NIDs to show. Of these 29 young people, most were female and all of them had increased their age on their NIDs. The survey showed 1,251 respondents with birth registration documents—half of whom had misreported their date of birth. Twenty three percent under-reported their age on their birth certificate and a little over a quarter over-reported.
When asked for the reasons behind applying for birth registration, everyone who responded with “for getting married” were female. Recently, we saw in the news that a 14-year-old died from marital rape and abuse 34 days after getting married to an older man. It is not hard to imagine what made it possible for her to be legally married at 14. We fear that in a country with a high rate of child marriage and high levels of vulnerability of female migrants, the ease with which age is falsely reported in official documents is putting our girls in greater danger.
We have laws that protect our children from trafficking, early marriage, child labour and other forms of abuse. In reality, this protection is absent for many reasons; and the ability to falsify official age, making identification documents like birth certificates and NIDs increasingly irrelevant, is emerging as an important enabling condition of such abuse. A unified and properly verified system of identification has become urgent to protect young girls from exploitation at home and abroad. It is also high time that we make this practice of changing your age socially unacceptable so that we can give children like Nodi a better chance to live.
Mehnaz Rabbani is Programme Lead of Research Policy and Governance at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD).