Nationality laws – a new battleground for women’s equality

More than 60 countries deny women equal rights with men to acquire, change or retain their nationality – a new global campaign aims to change that.

By Dimina Petrova. Published April 29, 2015 by openDemocracy.

The annual session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, held in New York last March, marked 20 years of the Beijing Declaration – where states committed to ensure equality between men and women.

The session saw UN member states, civil society and the wider gender equality community join together to celebrate progress and outline challenges faced in advancing global gender equality.

One set of practices that need attention are discriminatory nationality laws that continue to affect the lives of millions of women and their families. Today, 27 countries continue to discriminate against women by denying them the right to pass their nationality to their children. In total, more than 60 countries deny women equal rights with men to acquire, change or retain their nationality.

Sometimes this means that the children of these women lack a legal status, and in the worst case scenario become stateless – a gateway to further disadvantage, such as limited access to public education, health care or employment. In cases where a national woman marries a non-national man, gender-discriminatory laws treat their children as foreigners who must acquire a residence permit – an expense often out of reach for many families. Adding insult to injury, such families will often face stigmatisation and lack a sense of belonging. If the roles are reversed however, and a national man was married to a non-national woman, nationality could be passed onto their children without a problem.

In 2014, the Equal Rights Trust, in partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, UN Women, Equality Now, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, and the Women Refugees Commission, launched the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights.

We have done research on the impact of gender discriminatory laws on women and their families in Nepal and Madagascar. Our findings illustrate the devastating impact these discriminatory laws can have on women and their families. Deepti Gurung, just one of many women affected by Nepal’s discriminatory nationality law, told our researchers what life has been like for her and her two daughters who have been unable to gain Nepali citizenship:

“I raised those children on my own and I fulfilled my promise to give my everything to them. I am very, very happy about that,” she says, “but today when I look back I wish I could have taken a different decision so that my children would not have to face this problem.”


Flickr/philippe leroyer (Some rights reserved)

A Nepalese mother with her children. The economic and social implications of gender inequality in nationality laws can prove dire for women and their children.


Under Nepalese law, Deepti, as a single mother whose previous Non-Nepalese partner abandoned her, should be allowed to transfer her nationality to her daughters – the law permits the Nepalese authorities a degree of discretion in granting her children citizenship. In practice, however, this has proved problematic, due to procedural complexity and the impact of prejudice. Essentially, this has left Deepti’s two daughters stateless.

Because Deepti’s daughters don’t have Nepali citizenship they have faced countless challenges. They cannot open a bank account or hold a driving license. In five years’ time, if local authorities continue to deny her eldest daughter a citizen ID card, she won’t receive her law degree qualification. Deepti cannot even pass her property to her daughters.

“Even if I want to earn money and buy a piece of land, why would I do that? For whom? Because I am not able to pass that land to my children, or a house to my children,” she explains.

Deepti, her daughters and other families in a similar situation face a host of other problems, ranging from higher costs to access college, university and healthcare, restrictions preventing work in private or government jobs and an effective ban on international travel.

Aside from the direct impact of discriminatory nationality laws on the children of women married to non-nationals, or whose fathers are deceased or abandoned them, these laws contribute to and reinforce wider patterns of societal prejudice and discrimination against women. Fundamentally, laws that prevent women from acquiring, changing, retaining or conferring their nationality on an equal basis with men treat women as second class citizens, people of less value than men. As Deepti outlined:

“They have the same (citizenship) card for man and woman. That gives false hope that everyone has equal right to citizenship – but that is not true. They should have black citizenship cards for women and white cards for men.”

Today, 188 countries have ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, which contains specific provisions demanding equality in nationality laws. In 1995, states reiterated this commitment in the Beijing Declaration. Yet women such as Deepti continue to suffer this damaging and distressing form of discrimination, with serious consequences for them and their children.

There is cause for hope, however. Since 2000, more than 20 countries have reformed their nationality laws to remove gender discriminatory provisions. We studied best practices in law reform from two countries that recently reformed their laws – Indonesia and Kenya. Our research in both countries indicates that elimination of discriminatory nationality legislation is easy to do. The key ingredient in the reform process seems to be a political commitment to act and pressure from civil society to do so. In these countries, civil society groups initially pushed reform as an issue of women’s human rights. But they found that also framing the issue in terms of child protection was a winning strategy.

The critical role of political will in affecting whether and how legislation is reformed is demonstrated by Nepal’s experience. There action on gender equality is at a standstill due to the deadlock in parliament on wider constitutional issues. In other countries, there is no political commitment to act, and little pressure to do so, due to deep-seated cultural sexism. Yet, reform of nationality laws appears to be less sensitive and more achievable than other personal and family laws disadvantaging women.

The Equal Rights Trust and our partners in the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, have a simple message. Reform of gender discriminatory nationality laws is necessary; it is required by international law; and once the political will is built, it can be done. Twenty years after the Beijing Declaration, states must commit to finally eradicating this form of discrimination.

About the author:

Dimitrina Petrova is the Executive Director of the Equal Rights Trust. Equal Rights Trust’s research on gender discrimination nationality laws will be available in a report to be published later in 2015.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.

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