A quarter of countries still have discriminatory nationality laws that deny women the same nationality rights as men, reveals a worldwide report by the international human rights organization Equality Now (EqualityNow.org). Women are being prohibited from passing their citizenship onto their children and foreign spouses, and face restrictions on changing or retaining their nationality after marriage. Those affected are at higher risk of a range of human rights violations. Campaigners are calling on governments to dismantle sexist nationality laws and ensure full legal equality in citizenship.
The State We’re In: Ending Sexism in Nationality Laws (https://bit.ly/3nHqpnw) highlights how sex discriminatory nationality laws remain in 49 countries – accounting for 25% of United Nations member states.
Of the 55 member states of the African Union, 22 of these countries continue to deny women equal nationality rights – 17 in sub-Saharan Africa and five in North Africa – making it the region with the highest number globally.
Globally, women are prevented from passing their nationality onto their children on an equal basis with men in 28 countries. While in 46 countries, women are barred from passing nationality to their spouses on an equal basis.
The report updates previous research released by Equality Now in 2016, and shows how despite repeated commitments by governments to make moves towards repealing such discriminatory laws, many have yet to translate policy into action, causing suffering to millions of women and their families.
On a positive note, some progress has been attained. Over the past decade, significant declarations have been made by various governments at the regional and global levels, and 19 countries have carried out partial or full legal reforms to achieve equality in nationality laws.
Sexist nationality laws make people more vulnerable to other human rights violations
Discriminatory nationality laws stem from and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes based primarily on prescribed patriarchal roles assigned to women and men. This manifests in how women are the ones predominately excluded from the right to pass their nationality onto their child and spouse.
Ramifications can be grave and long-lasting. Individuals may encounter restrictions on their right to marry or be unable to obtain a birth certificate for their child, rendering their offspring stateless. Gender discrimination in nationality laws is a leading cause of statelessness, a status in which a person is not recognized as a citizen by any country and therefore cannot make legal claims to basic human rights, legal protections, and security normally provided by the state.
A woman can be trapped in an abusive or otherwise unhappy marriage when her or her child’s citizenship is dependent on her spouse. This applies in countries where women are stripped of citizenship acquired through marriage if that marriage dissolves, or when the citizenship of a mother’s child is tied to the status of the spouse. In addition, there are instances in which a person can lose their nationality upon their spouse’s death.
Discriminatory nationality laws can also make it difficult for a mother to claim child custody or gain access to her children if her marriage breaks up. And girls who do not have nationality in their country of residence are at greater risk of child and forced marriage as families may view this as a way to gain legal status.
People without citizenship are commonly not entitled to receive publicly-funded medical services or schooling. Access to jobs, economic opportunities, and financial services is curtailed, and in some countries, inheriting or registering personal property is disallowed.
Individuals can experience curbs on their freedom of movement and be ineligible to apply for a passport, making travelling abroad difficult. Many are subjected to the trauma of forced separation, and families frequently live with the fear of children and spouses being deported.
The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated and exacerbated such problems, with those impacted by statelessness exposed to additional layers of exclusion, bureaucracy, and restricted movement. In some countries, children and spouses of women unable to pass on their nationality have been denied pandemic-related social welfare and medical aid.
Minority communities are disproportionately impacted by discriminatory nationality laws
The poor, disadvantaged, and undocumented shoulder additional hurdles when attempting to navigate often complex legal systems that sometimes set narrow timeframes for claiming nationality.
Women from minority communities are saddled with compounded discrimination and are further marginalized by being denied citizenship rights. A 2018 report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues (https://bit.ly/3agRKKl) noted that over three-quarters of the world’s stateless population belong to national, ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities. This is ofttimes underpinned by “deliberate policies and practices” within discriminatory nationality laws and discriminatory application of such laws against minorities.
Nationality laws discriminate against those who are LGBTQ+
Various countries discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer individuals (LGBTQ+) regarding their ability to pass nationality to their spouse or child, whether biological or non-biological. This includes when the law does not recognize same-sex marriage, and even when it is recognized, nationality is not always automatically passed on.
Even in countries that legally recognize same-sex relationships, the lack of biological links to surrogate or adopted children can affect the ability of same-sex couples to pass nationality to their children, potentially causing statelessness.
Countries must urgently amend nationality laws that discriminate on the basis of sex
Everyone has the right to be born with a nationality and to be secure in their human right to equally acquire, change, retain or transfer it, as provided for under international law. And all women, no matter their gender identity, sexual orientation, marital or motherhood status, should be able to transfer nationality to their children and spouses equally.
Antonia Kirkland, Equality Now’s Global Lead on Legal Equality, says, “Governments have affirmed the fundamental right to sex equality in international treaties, declarations, and domestic constitutions. Denying women equal nationality rights to men is a clear form of discrimination based upon sex, and is a human rights violation that contravenes international law.”
“All women and men should be equally able to pass citizenship onto their children wherever born and to their spouse whether they married at home or abroad. This is irrespective of whether the parental relationship is heterosexual or same-sex, and a child is born in or out of marriage, or is or is not adopted.”
“Equality Now is calling for all governments with sex discriminatory legal provisions on nationality to review, amend and harmonize their legislation by 2030 to ensure consistency between relevant laws and regulations, with all women and men treated equally and fairly.”
What does international law say about nationality laws?
The fundamental right to sex equality has been affirmed and reaffirmed repeatedly by governments in international treaties, declarations and conferences, as well as in domestic constitutions. At the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, 189 governments pledged in the Beijing Platform for Action to “revoke any remaining laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.” In 2000, the UN General Assembly established a target date of 2005 for revocation of all sex-discriminatory laws.
The basic right to nationality has also been established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the Convention on the Rights of Child, and reinforced by the Beijing Platform for Action. The Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination calls for the right to nationality “without distinction as to race, color, or national or ethnic origin,” and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has urged StatesParties “to refrain from applying different standards of treatment to female non-citizen spouses of citizens and male non-citizen spouses of citizens.”
Article 9 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women prohibits discrimination in the conferral of citizenship on children and foreign spouses as well as discrimination in the acquiring, changing and retaining of nationality.
Despite this, numerous laws that explicitly discriminate against women, including in the area of nationality, are still in force. Governments should prioritize the elimination of all discrimination on the basis of sex to comply with their international legal obligations as well as their own national obligations to ensure equality.
The Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights (GCENR) (https://EqualNationalityRights.org) was established in 2014 by Equality Now, Equal Rights Trust, the Institute for Statelessness and Inclusion, the Office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Women’s Refugee Commission, dedicated to the eradication of gender discrimination in nationality laws worldwide. The current Steering Committee members also include Family Frontiers, Nationality For All, and Women’s Learning Partnership.
The GCENR coalition advocates for international action to reform laws in countries where women are prevented from passing their nationality to their children or spouses on an equal basis with men. With our partners in the campaign, we raise awareness about nationality rights, publicize research, and advocate for legal reform.
The GCENR has undertaken substantial outreach and engagement at the international, regional, and national levels, to raise the visibility of the need to ensure equal nationality rights and the serious costs of gender discrimination in nationality laws to both affected persons and their families and society as a whole.
Sex discriminatory nationality laws in Africa
The following 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and five in North Africa have nationality laws that discriminate against women on the basis of sex:
SUB SAHARAN AFRICA: Benin; Burundi; Cameroon; Central African Republic; Comoros; Congo (Republic Of); Eswatini; Liberia; Madagascar; Malawi; Mauritania; Mauritius; Nigeria; Sierra Leone; Somalia; Tanzania; Togo.
NORTH AFRICA: Egypt; Libya; Morocco; Tunisia; Sudan.
In September 2015, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights drafted a new Protocol on the Right to Nationality, and this now awaits finalization, endorsement, and adoption by the African Union.
Subregionally, in 2016 the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum adopted a Resolution on the Prevention of Statelessness and the Protection of
Stateless Persons in the SADC Region, and in 2017, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) adopted a Declaration on the Eradication of Statelessness, both of which call on member states to uphold equality nationality laws.
About Equality Now:
Equality Now (www.EqualityNow.org) is an international non-governmental human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional, and national legal advocacy. Our international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sex trafficking, online sexual exploitation, sexual violence, and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage.