“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

Ensuring gender equal nationality laws is key to ending statelessness

15 January 2016 | Catherine Harrington, Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights
UNICEF Ethiopia

If statelessness is to be eradicated, it is vital that all States ensure that women and men have equal nationality rights – rights that govern one’s ability to acquire, change, retain and confer citizenship. Gender discrimination in nationality laws is one of the leading causes of statelessness, a fact underscored in UNHCR’s Global Action Plan to End Statelessness, which counts Action #3 as ending gender discrimination in nationality laws.

Of course, no other reason should be needed to justify equal nationality rights for women and men, outside of the fundamental right to non-discrimination itself.

Today, there is a growing movement to realize gender equal nationality laws worldwide. This is the mission of the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, which mobilizes international action through our coalition of international, regional and national organizations and activists. 

Overview, Impact and Root Causes

27 countries presently deny women equal rights to pass their nationality to their own children. Over 50 countries maintain other forms of gender discrimination such as denying women equal rights to confer nationality to spouses, stripping women of citizenship upon marriage to a foreigner, or maintaining higher barriers for single fathers to confer nationality to children.

While gender discriminatory nationality laws were traditionally the norm, over the past century most countries recognized that women deserve equal access to this fundamental right and society as a whole benefits from gender equal nationality laws.

Gender discrimination in nationality laws results in wide-ranging, serious human rights violations including statelessness; lack of access to education, healthcare, social services and formal employment; inhibited freedom of movement; obstacles to owning property and acquiring inheritance; psychological distress and social alienation. These laws – like all forms of gender discrimination – don’t just hurt women and girls, but harm men, boys and society as a whole.

One often misunderstood fact about discriminatory nationality laws pertains to the roots of the laws themselves. In former colonial States – where most of these laws persist – this discrimination is almost universally the legacy of colonial rule, a colonial rule itself based on discrimination.

Gender discrimination in nationality laws is often in contradiction to mandates for equality enshrined in the Constitutions of many countries that maintain these laws. Such discrimination is also in contradiction to international law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which explicitly mandates gender equal nationality laws in Article 9. All but seven countries have ratified CEDAW. Gender equal nationality laws are also critical to achieving goals set by the international community in the new Sustainable Development Goals, including goals on gender equality and the right to legal identity.

The Path Forward

Following significant advocacy from civil society, momentum for reform is building in a number of countries that have yet to remove gender discriminatory provisions from their nationality laws. Last year, Ministers from the fifteen West African States that comprise ECOWAS committed in the Abidjan Declaration to take action to end statelessness, including through enacting reforms to ensure women and men have equal nationality rights. With ECOWAS members Liberia, Sierra Leone and Togo included in the 27 countries that deny mothers equal rights to confer nationality to their children, hopes are high that these countries will make good on their commitment in the coming year. In November 2015, the President of the National Assembly of Madagascar and over 30 parliamentarians committed to take action this parliamentary session to remove gender discrimination from the nationality law. Though delayed a number of times, the government of The Bahamas and its Constitutional Commission have now pledged to hold a Constitutional Referendum in 2016 on the question of reforming its Constitution to guarantee women and men equal nationality rights. If The Bahamas referendum passes, Barbados will then be the last country with this form of discrimination in the Western Hemisphere.

While these developments inspire hope for the eradication of gender discriminatory nationality laws, international attention and mobilization for reforms remains urgently needed. The combination of displacement and the inability of Syrian women to confer nationality on their children threatens to result in a new generation of stateless children. In Nepal – a country where roughly one in four lack identity documents – the new Constitution, which denies women the right to independently confer nationality to their children, requires mothers to prove that their children’s fathers are Nepali citizens in order for children to acquire citizenship by descent. In a number of other countries that maintain this discrimination, despite commitments made at the international level, governments are taking no concrete action to enact reforms.

Despite these challenges, we know that with grassroots mobilization and international pressure we can realize a world where nationality rights are equal for all citizens, women and men. Success requires broad-based coalitions – not only from traditional actors such as women’s rights groups, which have been the backbone of reform movements – but also those seeking to advance children’s rights, access to healthcare and education, champions from within parliaments, and actors and networks working to eradicate statelessness, such as ENS. 

Gender discrimination, like statelessness itself, has no place in the 21st century. By collaborating across regions, raising our voices and holding political leaders to their responsibility to ensure equality, we will realize a world where nationality rights are not based gender, but simply one’s status as a citizen. We invite you to join the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights in this important effort.

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