Equal Nationality Rights: It’s Time to End Gender Discrimination in Nationality Laws

Wednesday, 18 June 2014 14:02 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Please, can you explain to me, because I don’t understand. Why is there this discrimination? Why do they differentiate between men and women? I don’t understand why?” (Kuwaiti woman married to a stateless man, who is unable to pass her Kuwaiti nationality to her children).

In 27 countries around the world, women are unable to pass on their nationality to their children, or to their non-national spouses, on an equal basis with men. In over 60 countries, women face discrimination in their ability to acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis with men. Such discrimination is in violation of international law and can have devastating consequences on women and their families.

Today in Geneva, the International Campaign to End Gender Discrimination in Nationality Laws will be launched during the 26th session of the Human Rights Council. The two-year campaign – led by six organizations (Equality Now, the Equal Rights Trust, Tilburg University Statelessness Programme, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), UN Women and the Women’s Refugee Commission) – aims to persuade governments to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws. This will be achieved by building an international coalition of NGOs, civil society organizations, academic institutions and UN agencies to work together for change. Governments that have recently reformed their laws can act as champions, encouraging other governments to follow suit. Three such countries – Senegal, Kenya and Tunisia – will speak at the Campaign launch and explain how their governments went about reforming their laws and the impact this had had on women and their families.

In March 2015 at a conference in New York, governments will review the commitments they made at the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference. One of these commitments was to remove gender discrimination from all laws by 2005. Ten years on, some progress has been made but more needs to be done. As we mark the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Women’s Conference, the Campaign will invite governments to make time-bound pledges to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws.

The Far-reaching Consequences of Being Stateless

If a woman is unable to pass on her nationality to her children and the children are unable to acquire their father’s nationality because he has died, is unknown or stateless, or he is unwilling or unable to confer his nationality to his children, the children can be rendered stateless. In countries where a wife’s nationality is dependent on her husband, a change in his nationality or a situation where he is deprived of his nationality could also render his wife stateless.

Statelessness has serious and far-reaching consequences. Stateless persons may be unable to access public education, health services or other public services. They often cannot obtain identity documents, they may be unable to move freely within or leave their country – and if they do, they may be unable to return. They can often not open bank accounts, own or inherit property. They may be unable to go to university, access formal employment or training. They are at constant risk of arrest, harassment and deportation. A husband from another country who is unable to acquire his wife’s nationality due to gender discrimination in the laws may face similar restrictions in his job and education possibilities, his ability to travel and his full participation in society generally.

Discriminatory nationality laws put a huge strain on family unity, leaving spouses and children feeling particularly vulnerable and in some cases increasing the risk of family violence. Some women divorce their husbands in an attempt to acquire citizenship for their children. Some women choose not to have children as they do not want to subject them to a life of statelessness. Stateless persons are often unable to marry or may require State permission to do so. And maintaining family unity is often extremely difficult as stateless children and spouses are subject to immigration control. Women’s inability to pass on their citizenship to their children and spouses puts huge financial, psychological and physical strains on families, resulting in an intergenerational spiral of poverty, destitution and depression.

“If I had known that there would be these problems, I would never have married my husband. Why are my children to blame for a mistake I made? I made a choice to marry someone who doesn’t have the same nationality as me. Now my kids can’t access education or healthcare, and my husband really suffers from this problem, emotionally it really affects him. I really regret it sometimes, but I didn’t think that there would be there problems when I wanted to marry.” (A Jordanian national married to an Egyptian man.)

Three Simple Words Is All It Takes

Significant progress has been made to address gender discrimination in nationality laws with 13 countries reforming their laws over the past 10 years. The most recent, Senegal, voted to remove all discrimination from its nationality law in June 2013. Other countries to have recently reformed their laws include: Egypt, Algeria, Indonesia, Morocco, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tunisia and Monaco. Some countries have partially reformed their laws (Iraq and Sierra Leone); others are in the process of reviewing and reforming their laws (the Bahamas and Nepal); some have pledged to reform their laws (Liberia and Bahrain); and others have recently enacted legislation to alleviate some of the hardships faced by stateless children and non-national husbands (the United Arab Emirates and Jordan).

Such gathering government momentum, as well as a growing international movement among NGOs, UN agencies and academic institutions to advocate for an end to gender discrimination in nationality laws, has led to the launch of the International Campaign to End Gender Discrimination in Nationality Laws.

Removal of gender discrimination from nationality laws is an achievable goal. In many cases, all it takes is the addition of three simple words “and their mother...” allowing children to acquire a nationality from their mother, as well as their father. Three simple words that can change the lives of a whole family.

To find out more about how you can support the International Campaign to End Gender Discrimination in Nationality Laws, go to www.equalnationalityrights.org