They are citizens tooGender equality was sacrificed in the name of preserving social and cultural values
The preamble to the constitution promises ‘to build an egalitarian society founded on the proportional inclusive and participatory principles in order to ensure economic equality, prosperity and social justice, by eliminating discrimination based on class, caste, region, language, religion and gender and all forms of caste-based untouchability’. Nevertheless, discriminatory provisions exist in the constitution itself.
The Amendment Bill on Citizenship restricts women from conferring citizenship to their children independently in the same capacity as men. Both the constitution and the bill demonstrate how gender equality can be sacrificed in the name of preserving social and cultural values. In the name of security, women are considered to be a threat to the country should they decide to stay back in Nepal with their children after marrying foreigners and assert their full citizenship rights. Thus, birth and birthright, in relation to citizenship, are entangled in a complex politics of power and patriarchy. The notion of granting citizenship through motherhood is the assertion that mothers are not citizens in their own right but that they create citizens.
Patriarchy is not unique to Nepal. For example, under Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system, every woman must have a male guardian, a husband or relative who has the authority to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf. Women are required to obtain the guardian’s approval to apply for a passport, travel outside the country, study abroad on a government scholarship or get married. Non-Muslims are not entitled to citizenship. In a bid to become the world leader in artificial intelligence, Saudi Arabia granted citizenship to Sophia, the first humanoid robot, without having to convert to Islam. She is not required to don a veil or be accompanied by a male guardian. The fundamental question remains: If she had applied for citizenship as a human, would she have been entitled to obtain it?
Nepal is a state party to both the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Discriminatory nationality laws are explicitly prohibited by Article 9 of CEDAW and declares that inheritance, citizenship and guardianship of a child are equal status issues that are non-negotiable rights. Likewise, Article 7 (1) of the CRC explicitly states that children have the right from birth to acquire a nationality.
The proposed Amendment Bill on Citizenship is set to entrench the discrimination that is writ large in the constitution in violation of the enunciated spirit of CEDAW and CRC although Part 2, Article 10 of the constitution guarantees citizenship to all without discrimination and Part 3, Article 38.1 guarantees equal rights of women under the Fundamental Rights and Duties. It will only institutionalise discrimination against women based on marital status, especially those married to foreigners.
The provision requiring both the father and mother to be Nepali citizens will further create statelessness for children born as a result of incest and rape, particularly the children born during the 1996-2006 armed conflict.
Lack of citizenship has a life-long impact on children and women. They are denied access to education, quality healthcare, employment and mobility. They cannot participate in public affairs, engage in productive activities, access finance and possess assets, leading to powerlessness and dependency on their guardians, particularly the male members of the family. It is not possible to even assume how many children are living today as stateless children. They remain invisible in the eyes of the state and are not a priority for development aid. They are the forgotten and neglected category of children of Nepal.
In the short run, the discriminatory provisions in the Amendment Bill on Citizenship should be removed. In the long run, the constitution itself should be amended to eliminate discriminatory provisions to conform with international norms and standards to ensure women’s and children’s rights to citizenship. It is only when the state treats its citizens with the respect and dignity that each of them deserves that they will rise to protect and promote the national interests. Talks need to be held between women’s rights activists, feminists, citizens and the parliamentary State Affairs Committee before the draft bill is tabled in Parliament.
Silawal-Giri is an expert on gender equality and social inclusion issues.