Are women not Nepali enough?
Last Friday, The House of Representatives, through a majority vote, endorsed the amendment to the Citizenship Act 2063 (2006), and on Thursday the Nepal Citizenship (First Amendment) Bill, 2022 was passed by the National Assembly.
Since the Citizenship Act came into effect before the promulgation of the Constitution of Nepal in 2015, it was necessary to amend it to make it compliant with the provisions regarding citizenship in the Constitution.
While a bill to amend the Act was registered in the Parliament back in 2018, it never moved ahead as the State Affairs Committee could not build a consensus among parties. The government then withdrew the amendment earlier this month, and registered a new one. The new bill clears the way for the thousands of children of parents who got citizenship by birth to become citizens by descent, and allows Non-Resident Nepalis to acquire citizenship. However, legal experts and activists say that it is blatantly discriminatory towards women.
“It still pushes the notion that men are the supreme beings and women are merely second-class citizens,” says senior advocate Meera Dhungana.
Nepal citizenship is based on the principles of jus sanguinis or bloodline. While there are neither clauses attached or self-declaration needed when conferring citizenship by descent to a child of a Nepali man, the same is not true in case of a child born to a Nepali woman.
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A Nepali man does not even have to mention the name or nationality of the mother for their child to get citizenship. But the mother still needs to navigate the loops of the legal system to ensure their child can obtain Nepali citizenship.
The bill does pave the way for a child born to a Nepali woman in Nepal whose father is unidentified, to get citizenship by descent. But there is a catch: the woman must make a self-declaration that the father cannot be identified and if the claim turns out to be false, she can be jailed and/or fined.
“The provision itself is an insult,” says senior advocate Satish Krishna Kharel. “In a society like ours where children whose fathers are not identified often face stigma and abuse, that requirement is demeaning.”
Likewise, a foreign woman married to a Nepali man can easily obtain naturalised citizenship once she starts the process of renouncing the citizenship of her country of origin. However, there is no such provision for foreign men married to Nepali women to get Nepali citizenship.
Granting naturalised citizenship to foreign women married to Nepali men has been highly politicised, with the UML along with the Maoist Centre and other fringe parties demanding an interval of a few years before foreign women married to Nepali men are eligible for naturalised citizenship. But the Maoists backtracked, and supported the Nepali Congress and Madhes-based parties to remove that interval period.
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To be sure, ever since the first Citizenship Act in 1952 and the others that followed, foreign men married to Nepali women have not been able to obtain Nepali citizenship through their wives. The bill simply continues that tradition.
“Whatever the decision, whether to have a wait-period or not, shouldn’t it be the same for the spouses of both Nepali men and women? When a Nepali man can ensure citizenship for their spouse, why can’t the same be true for Nepali women?” asks Dhungana.
Moreover, a child born to a Nepali man married to a foreign woman can obtain citizenship by descent, but a child born to Nepali mother and a foreign father will only be eligible for naturalised citizenship — that too at the discretion of the state.
“It is more or less like saying that only a father is a true parent, and the role of a mother does not matter,” she adds. The argument against providing naturalised citizenship to foreign men married to Nepali women has always been that if it is allowed, Indian men will flood into Nepal. But that nationalist reasoning is dismissed as absurd by most experts.
Says Kharel: “Rather than evidence-based arguments, views on citizenship are based on nationalist paranoia.”
Read more: Nepal’s unequal Citizenship Law, Ajay Pradhan