Unequal: How Nepal’s Citizenship Laws Prevent Young Women from Achieving Their Dreams

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)

Equal Nationality Laws Are Vital to Realizing Girls’ Rights and Security

This post was written by Catherine Harrington, Campaign Manager for the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, on behalf of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls.

At first glance, laws governing nationality rights might seem irrelevant to securing the rights and security of girls across the globe. But, in reality, when countries deny women and men equal nationality rights, it can result in serious violations of girls’ most basic human rights.

Nationality laws dictate one’s ability to acquire, change, retain and confer nationality. Today, 27 countries deny women equal rights to pass their nationality to their own children. Over 50 countries maintain some form of gender discrimination in their nationality law, including denying women the right to pass nationality to foreign spouses.

When women are denied equal rights to confer nationality to their children, children with foreign fathers are at risk of being left stateless – a status whereby no state recognizes the child as a citizen. Children may be unable to access their father’s nationality for a variety of reasons. In Nepal, a country where roughly one in four persons lack entity documents, if the mother cannot prove the father’s Nepali nationality, the child is denied citizenship by descent. Similarly, Syrian women who give birth inside the country do not have the right to pass citizenship to children unless the father is stateless or does not legally recognize the child. Syrian women who give birth outside the country do not have the right to pass citizenship to their children under any circumstance.

With countless Syrian refugee women separated from their husbands and giving birth abroad, a new generation of stateless children born to displaced Syrian women emerges. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these discriminatory laws discriminate against women, though a small number of countries deny unmarried fathers equal rights to confer to children due to outdated notions of gender and parenthood.

While discriminatory nationality laws can result in significant hardships for all members of a family – and ultimately hurt society as a whole – the impact on girls is especially damaging because of compounding discrimination faced by girls, their resulting lack of voice and overall inattention to girls’ needs.

  • Children without nationality often lack access to education, are denied entrance to university and are prevented from acquiring professional licenses upon adulthood. If they are allowed to attend school, they may be forced to pay higher fees. Because of persisting gender stereotypes, families with limited resources often prioritize boys’ education over girls’.
  • Children without nationality are often denied access to healthcare systems and social services. This means that adolescent girls who lack citizenship are denied access to essential sexual and reproductive healthcare.
  • Gender discrimination in nationality laws is linked with child marriage. Due to the lack of opportunity and insecurity experienced by stateless girls, some families view early marriage as a route to greater security for their daughters, who can access citizenship through their husbands.
  • Stateless girls are at a higher risk of being trafficked.
  • Already marginalized girls without citizenship know that as adults they will lack a political voice and be banned from running for office.

At a time when the international community is increasingly recognizing the vital role girls play in achieving peaceful, prosperous societies, gender discrimination in nationality laws prevents girls across the globe from realizing their dreams, securing their rights and fully contributing to society.

Gender equal nationality laws are critical to realizing a world where girls’ rights and security are protected. The good news is, with all of the complicated challenges facing the world today, ending gender discrimination in nationality laws is relatively simple with the political will.

In the past decade, over a dozen countries removed gender discrimination from their nationality laws. In some instances the addition of just two words to the law, “man or woman,”* can fix this unnecessary problem. The Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights is part of a growing movement of organizations – including multiple members of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls – activists and political leaders working to ensure that nationality rights are based on citizenship, not gender. We invite you to join us in this important effort. Gender discrimination, like statelessness, has no place in the 21st century. Girls deserve a future where neither exists.

*Countries have amended their laws in the following manner to eliminate gender discrimination in the law: “The child of a [nationality] man or woman is a citizen; the spouse of a [nationality] man or woman may acquire citizenship.”
Photo credit: UNHCR Photo Unit