By Bidhyalaxmi Maharjan, Women LEAD’s Communication Intern
Life has never been easy for Reni.* When her father died of cancer, she took over her family shop, but it was very difficult for her family of seven to live on the shop. Later, when an acquaintance offered her a job at a finance company, she was more than happy to get a job that paid her 7,000 rupees, or $70, a month. But she did not get the job for one reason—she was not a Nepali citizen.
That was the first problem among hundreds of others Reni would go through following the death of her father. While Nepali fathers are able to pass citizenship to their children regardless of their wives’ nationality, Nepali mothers who are single or married to a foreign partner are not afforded the same right. Their children can then either live their life as a stateless person, or navigate Nepal’s complex bureaucracy in an attempt to become citizens of their country. Reni was too young to file for citizenship before her father’s death (you must be 16), and she now had no way to prove she was his daughter. She has since made rounds at the offices of the Chief District Officer in Bhaktapur to try to get citizenship, not just for herself but also for her two younger brothers and sister.
“I feel excluded from all the services the government provides to its citizens. I wanted to continue my studies. I had dropped out of high school. I thought of applying for a scholarship, but I knew I would not get it, because I did not have citizenship,” she explained.
It’s not just the government that has attempted to deprive her from acquiring citizenship—Reni’s family has also tried to force her to get married in order to obtain the proper documentation. “Even my own brothers have such a concept. I faced a lot of pressure to get married. They would not have submitted my application in a recent bid to get citizenship, if I hadn’t insisted. They don’t acknowledge it as my problem at all.”
Unlike men, Nepali women and girls face a number of different issues in their attempts to become citizens. Many people believe marriage is a simple “out” when it comes to obtaining citizenship for their daughters, though it is hardly a solution.
“If the woman acquires citizenship through her husband by specifying his name on the marriage certificate, then she will need to change [her last name] again if she gets divorced later,” explains Subin Mulmi, who has been actively advocating for Nepali women’s right to pass on the citizenship to their children. “The name of the husband will be removed and the surname of the husband will also be removed,” added Mulmi.
Anuja* faced the similar plight when her father refused to verify that she was his daughter after her parents’ marriage ended. “My mother got married when she was 19. My parents separated after I was born though they did not divorce formally. My maternal grandparents brought me up. What I couldn’t see is why my identity was being tied so closely with my father. My mother has invested in me, but during my struggle to get the citizenship, I felt as if my mother had nothing to offer me.”
According to the existing constitutional provision, it is mandatory for a divorced Nepali woman to either identify her husband or prove that the father of the child is unknown in order to pass on citizenship to her child.
Not possessing citizenship can be a huge obstacle for young Nepalis, especially women. Many Nepalis brought up by single mothers spend years battling to get the proper documents. Citizenship is required to get higher education, get jobs, and go abroad. “I wanted to go abroad, but since I didn’t have citizenship, I thought I can’t make passport. I feared I would be treated unfairly in college because I did not have citizenship,” said Anuja.
As Nepal celebrates the first anniversary of the promulgation of the constitution this week, thousands of Nepalis like Reni and Anuja feel that they are not equal in the eyes of their government. They cannot follow their dreams because they do not possess citizenship, even when they as Nepali as any of us.
*Names have been changed.
Featured image: Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank (Creative Commons)