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Women Should Be Able To Pass On Citizenship To Her Spouse And Children, Says UN General Assembly

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Can you imagine not having a home during a pandemic like the one we’re going through? If you’re able to read this on your smartphone or laptop, in your home or office, and have a passport with your nationality emblazoned on it, then you probably don’t know the feeling. But for many people around the world, statelessness is a constant state of being. What’s that you ask? Well, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the international legal definition of a ‘stateless’ person is “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”. In simple terms, they are not citizens of any country at all. While there might be several reasons for their statelessness, one of the chief reasons for refugees around the world is gender discrimination in nationality laws of certain countries. At the 75th UN General Assembly on Wednesday, a call for reforming such gender-biased nationality laws was made.

ICYMI,  this year, the United Nations is observing the 75th anniversary of its organisation. Several high level events have been planned with leaders and international delegations speaking at the 75th UN General Assembly. On Wednesday, the UN General Assembly heard a call for reforms from UN Women, the UN Development Programme, UNHCR, and the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights in the nationality laws of several countries. These laws discriminate on the basis of gender, in that they do not bestow upon female citizens the same rights as male citizens have to pass on citizenship to a foreign national spouse or their children.

According to a report by the UNHCR, more than 50 countries in the world right now have gender discriminatory nationality laws.

Gender discrimination in nationality laws affects families on several levels

These biased laws have also been cited as the primary cause of statelessness in many countries. One of the cases that were highlighted was of that of Hanan Jaber Abdallah, a Sudanese mother who wasn’t allowed to confer Sudanese citizenship on her five children (of mixed Sudanese and South Sudanese descent) by birth. It took a struggle for eight long years to finally be able to do that.

However, not every woman and family has been able to do that, despite years of struggle. Not having a nationality can be difficult because citizenship is what accords people basic rights in their country of domicile, allowing them to buy property, arrange for healthcare, gain employment and access all the other facilities and privileges that the country could grant them. Can you imagine being unable to do any of that, rendered utterly helpless, simply because even it was your mother who was a citizen of your country and not your father?

Catherine Harrington, Manager of Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, while addressing the UN General Assembly, said, “Gender discrimination in nationality laws undermines women’s equal citizenship and results in wide-ranging rights violations and hardships for affected families, including obstacles to accessing education, healthcare, employment, family unity, freedom of movement, inheritance and property rights.”

In addition to the appeals by the UN officials from various concerned organisations, a young Nepali activist, Neha Gurung, also spoke to the UN General Assembly about how her mother was unable to confer nationality on her at birth. The consequent statelessness had impacted her life profoundly.

According to a 2016 Thomson Reuters report, the UNHCR estimated that there are roughly 10 million stateless persons in the world. And this was a rather conservative estimate. Between then and now, this number would’ve increased quite a bit.

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Gender discriminatory nationality laws and gender-based violence

Picture this: A woman who is a foreign national gets married to man of a different nationality. The husband is abusive, and beats the woman and their children. To protect the kids and herself, she divorces her husband after several years of being together. Now, the nationality of her husband’s country conferred on the woman by marriage gets stripped away from her. She’s rendered stateless, which inhibits her from gaining employment, or buying/renting a home, owning land and thereby providing for her children!

The link between gender-based violence and gender discrimination in nationality laws might seem far fetched but the ground reality is as harsh as you see above. If women are unable to confer the citizenship on their children, they might be forced to stay in abusive marriages. The could consider moving back to their own country, but what if that country also does not allow transfer of citizenship by birth? The children would not be considered citizens, which means they’d have to continue living with their father as only he can confer citizenship on them. The mother wouldn’t leave her children. And there we are, back to square one again.

The research also suggests that such statelessness might prompt parents to marry off their daughters early on to male citizens of the country in a bid to secure her citizenship. Thus, this in turn, exacerbates the already existing issues of child marriage, human trafficking and sex-trafficking.

Reforming nationality laws becomes important in a pandemic

Today, as citizens of India, there are certain rights, provisions, schemes and benefits that the country provides to its citizens that are accessible to you. Take, for example, the loan moratoriums, the health insurance policies, the free foodgrain supplies to the lower economic classes, etc which are only made available for citizens who hold an Aadhaar or ration card. These are the things that have helped so many families sustain themselves and their cost of living during the time of pandemic-driven recession.

But a stateless individual would not have access to any of these provisions and benefits, which instantly endangers their life. If they were to contract COVID-19, how would they survive it without medical assistance, employment or a place to quarantine in? In addition, there’s also deprivation of other essential healthcare infrastructure, such as family planning services, sexual health and reproductive health assistance, and so on which further worsens the lives of women and their families.

Ending gender discrimination in nationality laws will stop people from being displaced from their countries, and finally give them a sense of belongingness that is so necessary to a person’s self-actualization. It then becomes a matter of upholding basic human rights of the millions of people who are, in true spirit of the words, homeless.

UN Women Deputy Executive Director Anita Bhatia said, “Eliminating gender discrimination in nationality laws is a peace and security imperative, as well as a human rights and development issue. Putting an end to gender discrimination in nationality laws would have profound impacts on hundreds of thousands of lives through, for example, improved access to education, health care, identity documents, employment and inheritance, as well as the reduction of statelessness, conflict, and forced displacement globally.”

The appeal to the UN General Assembly was clear and definite. The gender discrimination in nationality laws wasn’t just affecting women but also the welfare of their families and thereby the welfare of entire societies. It was time for some major reform. In the words of Catherine Harrington “Gender-equal nationality laws are not only fundamental to women’s equal citizenship, but support children’s rights, families’ wellbeing, and sustainable development, thereby benefitting society as a whole,” said Harrington, “Now is the time to end gender discrimination in nationality laws – a harmful, man-made problem – once and for all.”

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