The Korea Herald


[Ottoline Spearman] Eradicate sexist nationality laws

By Korea Herald

Published : June 14, 2023 - 05:19

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Neha is a young Nepali woman, born in Nepal to a Nepali mother. She grew up there and had dreams of becoming a doctor. But, despite being an extremely bright student and at the top of her class, Neha could not take the entrance exam for medical school. Her ambition went unfulfilled, because she was not recognized as a citizen of Nepal.

Nepal is one of the 24 countries that deny women the right to pass their nationality to their children. It is also one of almost 50 states where women do not enjoy the same rights as men to acquire, change, and retain their citizenship, or confer citizenship on their spouse.

The nationality laws of these countries are rooted in sex discrimination and patriarchal norms. The assumption is that national and family identity naturally flows from men and that women are second-class citizens. It is astounding that a quarter of the world’s countries still have such blatantly sexist laws on the books. No one questions a man’s decision to marry a foreigner and confer nationality on his spouse or children. But it is framed as a woman’s fault if she chooses to marry a foreigner, or if the father of her child is out of the picture.

Deprivation of citizenship disenfranchises entire groups, pushes them to the margins of society, and transforms even the simplest tasks into insurmountable obstacles. Stateless people are routinely denied equal access to health care, education, and the labor market, as well as rights to political participation and free movement. They are told they don’t belong and are frequently portrayed as undeserving.

Invidious discrimination is the main driver of statelessness: more than 75 percent of known individuals without citizenship belong to minority groups. Colonialism and the decolonization process, which led to mass-migration flows, new borders drawn arbitrarily, and the development of ethnocentric and patriarchal norms, underpin most cases of large-scale statelessness in the world. After denying citizenship through discriminatory practices, governments use individuals and communities’ stateless status to justify further exclusion, linking statelessness and discrimination in a self-perpetuating cycle.

Some progress has been made. In Malaysia, for example, the government of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, a former political prisoner and thus no stranger to state oppression, recently agreed to amend the constitution so that Malaysian mothers with foreign spouses can pass on citizenship to their children born abroad. Previously, these Malay mothers had no choice but to rush home to give birth -- an inconvenient and dangerous journey while pregnant -- if they wanted their child to acquire nationality. Even that option was taken away during the pandemic, when borders were closed.

Statelessness -- and its effects on people’s legal rights and daily lives -- has attracted increased attention in recent years. The Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights has led the charge, pushing governments to reform their archaic and discriminatory nationality laws and ensure gender equality.

On June 13, the Campaign, together with UNICEF, the UN Refugee Agency, and UN Women, is organizing the first Global Summit on Achieving Gender Equality in Nationality Laws to highlight the detrimental effects of these discriminatory laws and to encourage reform. High-level government and UN officials will attend the event in Geneva, but we will also hear from people who endure statelessness because of these unacceptable laws.

The 53rd session of the UN Human Rights Council, which considers discrimination against women one of its key issues, will also be held in Geneva, starting on June 19. Three side events to the session will address statelessness, gender discrimination, human rights, and xenophobia, as well as the trafficking of stateless people.

In the run-up to these important events, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, where I work as a program and media officer, will unveil another valuable resource on June 12: the Statelessness and Exclusion Dialogues podcast. By exploring the relationship between discrimination and statelessness through various historical, social, and political lenses, the series will help people better understand the root causes of statelessness and the marginalization that stateless populations endure.

And what of Neha, who was unable to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor? Her mother and other activists and lawyers in Nepal worked tirelessly to secure Neha and her sister’s citizenship. Instead of studying medicine and helping sick people, she decided to study law and fight the sickness of gender inequality in her society.

Now a lawyer, activist, and inspiring young leader in the citizenship rights and statelessness field, Neha will speak at the Global Summit in Geneva, where she will implore those in power to eradicate the archaic and sexist nationality laws that remain a stain on our democracies. You, too, can hear her story and her plea for nationality justice in Nepal and around the world.

Ottoline Spearman

Ottoline Spearman is a program and media officer at the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion. -- Ed.

(Project Syndicate)