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Uganda’s national ID excludes marginalized persons

National IDs

National IDs

Many countries across the globe have adopted digital national identification technology.

In Uganda’s case, the first national IDs were issued in 2014, and are set to be renewed in 2023.  The renewal of national IDs comes at a critical time when the exclusionary effects of the existing National ID have been spotlighted.

It is reported that about 2.4 million Ugandans do not have national IDs and yet like in many countries, access to social protection, health and other social services are conditional on the presentation of the national ID card or number that utilizes advanced biometric technology. This simply means that, according to Section 66 of the Registration of Persons Act 2015, persons cannot access social services like social protection without a national ID.  

The ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development took a policy decision to use the national ID register as source data for enrolment in the Social Assistance Grants for Empowerment (SAGE) programme. Elderly persons deemed eligible must have their national ID data verified to reflect their age as 80 years and above to benefit from the programme.

This mandatory requirement invariably denies access to much-needed benefits to the elderly and other marginalized persons who do not have IDs, or those who have errors on their IDs, and as such, locks them out of a programme established to ease their access to healthcare and other basic necessities.

A plethora of reasons including high replacement costs, errors on dates of birth and names, and insufficient budgetary allocations, among others, have ensured that 54,559 older persons are excluded from receiving the Senior Citizens Grant according to the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.

According to a recent research report, Chased Away and Left to Die, published in 2021 by the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, Unwanted Witness and New York University, exclusionary effects are not limited to the SAGE grants but cut across to public health services.

Despite this, the government seems to be satisfied with the status quo and contentedly seeks to include the collection of DNA data in the proposed upgrades without addressing the glaring gaps in the implementation of the current National ID system, which likely places millions of people who are already excluded in a precarious situation.

It is pertinent now, more than ever, to look from a human rights perspective at the challenges experienced within the existing digital ID system and those that are likely to result from the proposed enhancement of the system.

A human rights approach to the implementation of the digital ID system and its proposed upgrades would require the special needs of vulnerable groups that would likely make it difficult to register and use the National IDs.

Access to social service initiatives by the government should directly enable the citizenry to enjoy their constitutionally guaranteed rights; for instance, the right to health and social protection.

An honest balancing of interests is required. Failing to enrol for a national ID should never be used as a ground for denial of any social services. From a literal constitutional sense, this amounts to discrimination.

The Constitution provides that all persons are equal under the law in all spheres and enjoy equal protection of the law. This seems not to be the case as the laws enacted and policies adopted that peg access to social services to possession of a national ID are the very drivers of discrimination.

Until we reach that utopian state where all persons have IDs, the government should offer alternatives to the national ID, as a requirement to access social services

The author is a lawyer.

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