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The earthquake in Nepal, along with a discriminatory law, leaves thousands of newborns at risk of statelessness.
Natural disasters exacerbate existing legal and social problems. In Nepal, one needless law means that, of the estimated 126,000 earthquake-affected women who are currently pregnant, thousands may give birth to children who will not legally be Nepali citizens. That’s because Nepali law requires proof of the father’s citizenship. For the many unborn or newborn Nepalis whose fathers have been killed – or who have even just lost their personal documents – proof of paternity and of the father’s citizenship will be incredibly difficult.
That may sound like a small thing given what Nepalis are facing right now, but the lack of citizenship – in fact the statelessness of these children – means obstacles to health care and other critical social services. It also means a lifetime of discrimination and denied opportunities.
In truth, the earthquake is not the true reason why these babies are at risk of statelessness. The cause is sex discrimination in Nepali law that denies women the right to confer their Nepali nationality to their children. Countries rarely think of natural disasters when they draft their Constitutions and establish the parameters of citizenship. However, it is in the wake of such crises that women and children – often displaced – feel the brunt of this discrimination.
The result in Nepal – as in 26 other countries with these laws – will be children denied both the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Discriminatory nationality laws set children up for a lifetime of hardships because they will not have access to free primary education. If they do manage to go to school, they will not be admitted to university later. Non-citizens face obstacles to healthcare and employment. They are often unable to open a bank account and cannot secure a passport.
In the long term, this law prevents these children from full participation in Nepali life and inhibits them from contributing to their country’s development.
Nepal already had one of the largest stateless populations in the world. The high cost of statelessness is all too familiar to hundreds of thousands of Nepali families. The death and destruction caused by the earthquake just exacerbated the problem.
The Interim Constitution gives children of Nepali women the right to apply for citizenship at age sixteen. The Supreme Court has ruled that women have the right to transfer citizenship to children. Despite this, local authorities refuse to accept citizenship applications without proof of paternity.
In the months before the earthquake, Nepal was in the process of developing a new Constitution, with the question of whether to grant women the right to automatically pass nationality to their children hotly debated. One simple act that would prevent additional suffering in the months ahead is for Nepal’s civil servants to grant citizenship to the children of Nepali women.
Let us hope that when Nepal rebuilds, as it most surely will, equal nationality rights and gender equality are enshrined in its new Constitution as a fundamental pillar of the country’s brighter future.
Catherine Harrington is the Campaign Manager of the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, which mobilizes international action to end gender discrimination in nationality laws. The Campaign is led by a Steering Committee of Women’s Refugee Commission, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Equality Now, Equal Rights Trust, and the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion. The Campaign is housed at the Women's Refugee Commission.