When black feminist theory was referenced on the podium at the closing plenary of the World Conference on Statelessness in the Hague last month, a few of us glanced at each other across the room with a mix of pride and excitement, thinking: our work here is done. The ‘feminist revolution’ in the world of statelessness has begun.
It began for us some months ago, when a few of us working in the sector, campaigners, advocates and academics, were brought together by preparations for the World Conference. We had all separately proposed sessions that touched on issues of gender and statelessness. When conference organisers, the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, noticed this and brought us together, we realised that we were all in our respective work in different corners of the globe pondering the same questions. Where is the feminism in work on statelessness, we wondered? Why is statelessness so rarely discussed as a gendered phenomenon? Where is the recognition that people are not ‘just’ stateless, but have multiple identities that interact with intersecting forms of oppression? What are we failing to understand about the causes and consequences of statelessness because of this blind spot? How can we sharpen our analysis and bring intersectional feminist analysis to our work?
Like many, we had admired and supported the tireless work of women’s rights activists, mostly in the global south, alongside the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, to end gender discrimination in nationality laws as one of the key causes of statelessness. But at the same time, we had noticed how so much of the wider literature on statelessness focuses on solving what is conceived primarily as a legal problem, rather than starting from an analysis of the patriarchal power structures that privilege some and exclude others, and what this means for our work and the experiences of the men and women we work with and for.
In our work at ENS, I had been thinking about what we know (and is well-documented) about women’s unequal access to resources, gender segregation in labour markets and education systems, the gender pay gap, violence against women and girls, reproductive rights and gendered social norms; and realising that we’re not thinking about how stateless women might experience these inequalities or how statelessness might exacerbate gendered disadvantage. A stateless woman is likely to be even further from the labour market than a woman national. She may have even less ability to make choices about her and her family’s life. Her precarious situation can put her at greater risk of trafficking, forced marriage, sexual exploitation, or domestic abuse. She could be stuck in a controlling relationship in which her lack of legal identity is used as a tool to exert power over her. As I argued when speaking at the UN Global Forum on Minority issues in November, when you consider that in Europe, as in other parts of the world, statelessness is inextricably linked not only to patriarchy, but to racism, antigypsyism, minorities, and migration, it’s clear why we need to bring an intersectional feminist analysis to our work.
We have also been thinking about how although there is no longer direct gender discrimination in European nationality laws, the implementation of these laws and how people access documentation required to evidence and access their nationality rights is undeniably impacted on by intersecting forms of oppression. Our #RomaBelong project, for example, has shown how unequal access to reproductive healthcare for Romani women in the Western Balkans - rooted in patriarchy and antigypsyism - impacts on their ability to secure birth certificates and nationality rights for their children.
Gendered social norms can also impact on the ability of women who are stateless or at risk of statelessness to resolve their status if they are unable to attend appointments or seek legal advice due to caring responsibilities or a controlling partner. Expectations placed on women in different contexts range from being the main carers and leaving administrative tasks to men in the family, to marrying, being monogamous and having children in wedlock. When women don’t conform to these norms, they can face immense social and familial pressure. If a child is born (or perceived to be born) out of wedlock, for example, and only the mother is registered on the birth certificate, she might choose or be prevented from registering the birth, heightening the risk of statelessness for the child.
All these issues need more research. We also need to listen to women and girls and provide safe spaces for them to speak out about the different challenges they face and changes they want to see.
We realised that the World Conference was the perfect opportunity to bring feminism to statelessness debates. Between us we hosted and contributed to four sessions over the course of the three-day conference in a bid to advocate for an intersectional feminist approach to statelessness activism and research. ENS hosted a roundtable on the margins of the conference entitled ‘Statelessness, gender and intersectionality: towards a more nuanced understanding of who is stateless, why and what this means for our work’, which we used as a space to voice the questions on our minds and brainstorm ideas. During the session, experts discussed the need to shift away from talking about statelessness as a specialised, technical issue and see it as another tool by which dominant groups maintain power over others; the need to find common ground and build coalitions with activists working on intersecting issues like child rights, women’s rights, LGBT+ rights, and others; the need to pay more attention to how women’s bodies and reproductive rights are instrumentalised in nation-building processes; and the need not to victimise people and their stories, but to ensure the voices of those affected by statelessness in different ways are being heard by decision-makers.
Above all, the message was clear: we urgently need to be having these conversations, and in doing so, we need to support more women to speak out, and build on the work of activists and theorists that have come before us. We will be continuing on this journey. Will you join us?
With thanks to my co-conspirators: Deirdre Brennan (Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, University of Melbourne Law School), Catherine Harrington (Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights) and Allison Petrozziello (Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University).