To date, over 96 million Pakistanis, both in the country and abroad, have received their biometric computerized national identity cards (CNIC). The CNIC is a prerequisite for opening a bank account, receiving a mobile SIM card, securing a passport and driver’s license, and other social and economic services. However, it was the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), a cash transfer social safety net launched in 2008 by the government with financial and technical assistance from the World Bank, that caused a spike in CNIC enrollment among the poorest segments of the population, women in particular.

The reason was two-fold: the cash transfers could be given only to the female head of the eligible household and, further, possession of a CNIC was a prerequisite for enrollment in BISP. This was a deliberate move by the government to empower women and provide them with legal identification.

Within four years of the launch of BISP, there was an overall increase of 72 percent in issuance of CNICs to the adult population in the country and a 94 percent increase in women enrollment. By 2012, 40 million women in Pakistan possessed CNICs. Through point-of-sale and automated-teller-machines, BISP has recently introduced a biometrically authenticated delivery mechanism matching with their ID database to ensure a verified delivery of cash transfers to the women beneficiaries.

The role of CNICs in empowering Pakistani women cannot be underestimated. The BISP Impact Evaluation Surveys conducted by Oxford Policy Management in 2011 and 2013 reported that women with CNICs felt a stronger sense of identity than they ever had before. They were eager to vote and know their rights as citizens of their country. Within their families, they were given more respect, which increased their self-confidence and emboldened them to share their opinion on household matters.

Recipients of the BISP cash transfer said they felt financially empowered for the first time in their lives. Evaluation results showed that 64 percent of female beneficiaries controlled how the cash transfer was spent. Others said that they were consulted on how the money should be spent. By and large, the women spent the cash transfer on nutrition and health. They also made greater use of reproductive health services. Evaluation also showed that BISP beneficiaries were more likely than non-beneficiaries to report that they would vote.