Our Hands Extended: International Calls to End Gender Discrimination in Nationality Laws

Catherine Harrington, Campaign Manager of the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights and Associate Director at the Women’s Refugee Commission
/ 8 mins read

The recent Global Summit on Gender Equality in Nationality Laws spotlighted the urgent need to eliminate gender discrimination in nationality laws. As activists and UN agencies emphasised, equal nationality rights are essential to advancing gender equality, children’s rights, and ending statelessness. While over 140 countries now have gender-equal nationality laws, 46 still deny women equal rights. This blog post highlights how momentum is building to enact reforms and fulfill state obligations, and how, with continued advocacy and political will, gender discriminatory nationality laws can be eliminated.


Every day families are suffering because of women’s inability to confer nationality on an equal basis with men. Children are denied equal access to education and healthcare, and as adults, equal access to formal employment and property rights. Families face the threat of forced separation and some affected persons are rendered stateless. The cumulative impact of hardships experienced by affected families causes significant psychological harm. Women’s equal citizenship is undermined and their equal status in the family is implicitly rejected by the states that uphold these discriminatory nationality laws. Global goals on gender equality, children’s rights and protection, ending stateless and sustainable development ALL cannot be achieved where gender-discriminatory nationality laws persist.

Thankfully, there has been significant progress in ending this form of discrimination. Roughly 90% of countries uphold women’s right to confer nationality on their children on an equal basis with men. 75% of countries have gender-equal nationality laws, including women’s equal ability to confer nationality on a non-national spouse. Still, however, 24 countries have nationality laws that deny women’s right to confer nationality on their own children on an equal basis with men (in addition to these twenty-four, the nationality law of Mauritius denies women the equal right to confer nationality on an adopted child.). Forty-five countries do not uphold women’s equal ability to confer nationality on a non-national spouse. This despite the fact that all but three of these states are signatories to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which obliges states to uphold gender-equal nationality laws and take action to end gender discrimination in all laws. All of the countries that deny women’s equal right to confer nationality on their children are signatories to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which enshrines the right of parents to confer nationality without discrimination on the basis of the parent’s sex.

Recognizing the need for expedited action to end gender discrimination in nationality laws, the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights worked in partnership with UNICEF, the UN Refugee Agency, and UN Women to convene the Global Summit on Gender Equality in Nationality Laws. On 13 June 2023, the Geneva-based Summit brought together leaders from governments, UN agencies, civil society and affected activists themselves to raise awareness of the unnecessary suffering caused by gender discriminatory nationality laws and the many benefits gender-equal nationality rights bring to society as a whole.

Unsurprisingly, the most powerful moments of the Summit occurred when we heard from activists who have suffered this grave injustice firsthand. As affected mother and passionate Omani human rights activists Habiba Al Hinai spoke, the audience was visibly moved – many trying to hold back tears as they listened to the suffering inflicted on Habiba, her son, and countless other families because of gender discrimination in nationality laws. Habiba powerfully and rightfully stated, “We are not asking for charity. We are calling for our equal rights.”

Impacted Malaysian mother Gaithiri Siva shared the painful situation she faced as a result of gender discrimination in Malaysia’s nationality law during the pandemic. Gaithiri gave birth to her child abroad following an international assignment by the Malaysian government-linked investment company she worked for. She applied for her child to obtain citizenship – which is automatically given to the children of Malaysian men born abroad – but her application remained unanswered years later. When the pandemic hit, she received the terrible news that her father in Malaysia had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. With non-nationals banned from entering the country during the pandemic, Gaithiri’s child was denied a travel visa to enter Malaysia with her. “Never in my worst nightmares did I think I would be put in a situation where I would need to choose between my dad and my daughter […] I cannot fully describe how it feels to have your country reject your child. I don’t have words for that.”

Formerly stateless Nepali activist Neha Gurung shared her family’s fight for her sister and herself to obtain their mother’s citizenship and their broader activism to end gender discriminatory nationality laws in Nepal and beyond. Neha called out the absurdity of an identical citizenship document given to women and men, which gives rights to men but not women:

“When the same citizenship card is given to both men and women, with the same color, same size, the same set of information, and the same type – then why are the RIGHTS emerging from such exact same document different for different genders? Why does the same card allow a man the right to confer his citizenship to his children and even to his foreign spouse, but women aren’t?”

At the Summit, representatives of UN agencies including UN Women, UNICEF and UNHCR emphasized the importance of gender-equal nationality rights to the achievement of their respective missions to realize gender equality, advance children’s rights and protection, and end statelessness. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi emphasized, “Equality is the bedrock principle on which our entire system of human rights is based, and on which the health and functioning of our societies depend,” and that “this legal and moral imperative to treat everyone equally also extends to nationality rights.”

The head of UN Women’s Geneva office highlighted that “when a State allows gender discrimination in its nationality laws, it is implicitly endorsing the notion of women as inferior and possessing second-class citizenship,” and noted this area is a priority for UN Women “because nationality rights are a first step to a whole host of other fundamental rights not only for women, but also for their spouses and children.”

UNICEF’s MENA Deputy Regional Director, Marc Rubin stressed, “equal rights for men and women in nationality laws has unequivocal implications for children’s rights and wellbeing” and are “crucial for safeguarding children's rights” and “breaking the cycle of discrimination.” He added, “By providing equal [nationality] rights, children gain legal recognition, access to services, and protection, fostering their overall development and enabling them to participate fully in society.”

We also heard from Hon. Williametta E. Saydee-Tarr, Minister of Gender, Children & Social Protection of Liberia, the most recent country to eliminate discrimination that denies women the right to confer nationality on their children on an equal basis with men. Honorable Minister Saydee-Tarr recognized that gender discrimination in the country’s previous nationality law was rooted in “an archaic stereotype against women.”  Minister Saydee-Tarr powerfully called for the international community to “rally with nations around the world” to end legal discrimination against women and encouraged countries with gender discriminatory laws to enact reforms in line with their CEDAW obligations.

We were heartened to have the participation of government representatives from three countries with gender-discriminatory nationality laws, who shared their commitment to support efforts to enact needed reforms. This included Eswatini’s Minister of Labour and Social Security who reaffirmed the countries’ 2019 pledge made at the High-Level Segment on Statelessness to end gender discrimination in their nationality laws by 2030. The Secretary of Kiribati’s Ministry of Women, Youth and Social Affairs, Maryanne Namakin, also affirmed the government’s goals to advance gender equality and to work towards addressing remaining gaps in the nationality law, which presently does not permit i-Kiribati women to confer nationality on their children born abroad or on a non-national spouse on an equal basis with men. A representative of Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, Major General Nashat Ibraheem Shallal Al-Khafaji noted that the Constitution upholds Iraqi women and men’s right to confer nationality on their children, but gaps remain in the nationality law, which does not uphold women’s right to confer nationality on their children born abroad. Major General Al-Khafaji shared the Ministry of Interior’s commitment to continue to work on these gaps to uphold the rights of Iraqi women no matter whether she gives birth inside Iraq or abroad.  

Major General Al-Khafaji closed by noting:

“It was very painful to hear the testimonies of several speakers. But I hope that Arabic countries are starting and we hope in the near future to work step by step like Morocco and several other countries did [to remove gender-discriminatory nationality law provisions]."

We also heard from several countries about their experience of successfully enacting reforms to remove gender-discriminatory provisions, with Indonesia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, H.E. Febrian Ruddyard, and Morocco’s President of the national Human Rights Commission, Ms. Amina Bouayach, sharing the many benefits of gender-equal nationality laws for their countries.

These recent reforms and the reforms already enacted by the vast majority of states prove a simple fact that is critical to any conversation about gender discrimination in nationality laws. There is a simple solution to this manmade problem that can end unnecessary suffering. It does not require research or vast sums of money to find a solution. It simply requires political will. We need political leaders in the countries where these discriminatory nationality laws persist to show bold leadership in the face of myths that seek to justify the perpetuation of this injustice. We can realize a world with gender-equal nationality rights – in most instances by changing one word in the law; ‘men’ to ‘citizens.’

I hope that the Global Summit and the awareness and momentum stemming from it brings us closer to that world. Affected persons, human rights activists, and principled political leaders are working every day for that reality. We stand ready to join hands with political leaders where gender-discriminatory nationality laws persist to take these next steps together.

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