No state for women

Nepali mothers can confer citizenship to their children, but conditions still apply

Illustration: Diwakar Chettri

Can Nepali mothers confer citizenship to their children? The short answer is YES. But if we rephrase this question to 'Can women independently, like men, confer citizenship to their children?’, then the answer is NO.  

I write as someone with lived personal experience of prolonged legal battles, activism, self-education about citizenship concepts, and as someone who has transitioned into a lawyer.

The adoption of the Nepal Citizenship (First Amendment) Act 2023 followed by the amendment to the Citizenship Regulation were positive steps. It took the country more than seven years to align the Act in line with the 2015 Constitution.

In terms of gender, it echoes all the constitutionally guaranteed citizenship rights of women – including the right to confer citizenship to her child where a father is unidentified. 

This is certainly a step in the right direction, and one that shows the impact of continuous advocacy and activism for gender equality in Nepal. This provision allows a person born to or raised by a single mother to acquire citizenship by descent. However, conditions apply. 

- The father has to be ‘unidentified’ 

- The person seeking citizenship should be born in Nepal; 

- And both the mother and the person need to sign a self-declaration form confirming that the father is ‘unidentified’.  

This is a constitutionally required condition only for women. Nepali men are considered full citizens with independent rights without the need to sign such self-declaration forms to confer citizenship to their children, irrespective of the mother’s citizenship status. 

Another critical condition in the Act is that if the father is later proven to be a foreign citizen, then: 

- The person’s citizenship by descent, which they acquired through self-declaration will be withdrawn; 

- The person will then have to sign another self-declaration form stating that no citizenship has been acquired from the father’s country; 

- This will then allow the person to acquire naturalised citizenship; 

- If this self-declaration is later proved to be false, the person will not only be stripped of citizenship but also imprisoned for 6 months to a year and/or Rs50,000 to Rs100,000 fine. 

Again, this punishment is based solely on the father’s citizenship status. This proves that Nepal’s nationality law is blatantly patriarchal as it reinforces that descent (bloodline) can only be inherited through males. If it is not a Nepali father, the child is not a citizen.  

Read more: Nepal’s unequal Citizenship Law,  Ajay Pradhan

Some may say, so what? At least the person can acquire naturalised citizenship through a mother when the father is a foreign citizen. And at least there is an option for self-declaration when the father is unidentified.

But there are still these problems: 

- Naturalised citizenship through mother is undignified. 

Naturalised citizenship is not a right, but a State’s discretion. Granting it based on the citizenship of the mother implies that children of Nepali mothers are considered foreigners unless their father is a Nepali citizen.  

- There is no legal definition for ‘unidentified.  

This vague word ‘unidentified’ holds many societal connotations and one is that the woman has had multiple relationships and cannot identify who the father of the child is. 

- The Condition of ‘being born in Nepal’ is discriminatory. 

While claiming citizenship through a mother in cases of an ‘unidentified father’, it is mandatory that the person was born in the country. However, the person need not be born in Nepal to acquire naturalised citizenship through a Nepali mother and foreign father. This implies that there are additional restrictions to acquire citizenship by descent through a mother than earning a naturalised citizenship through her. This is subtly disguised as a benefit, but is a huge slap in the face to all Nepali women.

Read Also: Nepal’s Citizenship Amendment Bill explained, Shristi Karki  

These discriminatory laws empower citizenship authorities to unjustly deny citizenship, exposing individuals to the risk of statelessness. I stand as a testament to this reality as I was denied the right to birth registration and at 16, also denied a citizenship certificate. I lived as a stateless person for the first 7 years of my youth and was barred from pursuing higher education or accessing fundamental rights guaranteed to citizens. 

Enduring humiliation came with snide comments like these: 

“Poor kid, I wish I could confer my citizenship by acting as her father!” 

“If we give citizenship to a child ‘like her’ then nieces and nephews from across the borders will also claim citizenship!” 

“How can you not know your husband?” 

“Give us the smallest clue. We will search and make him accountable.”

“No kid, it's not your fault, it's your mother’s fault –she should have known how to keep her husband happy if she wanted to ensure her children received citizenship.” 

“Oh, just marry her to some Nepali guy and she can get citizenship through him.”

A young me could not speak then. But today I will say this: my mother and all women are complete beings in ourselves and our citizenship rights do not have to depend on men. 

State actors argue that equal citizenship rights for women might lead to an influx of people from across borders. Our patriarchal citizenship laws haven't helped this xenophobia. 

Is denying citizenship rights to children of Nepali mothers and foreign fathers enough to stop dual citizenship? Aren’t children of a foreign mother and Nepali father, where the mother’s country also provides citizenship an issue? 

Read Also: Are women not Nepali enough?, Sahina Shrestha

Turns out gender discrimination is not a solution to prevent fraud or dual citizenship cases in Nepal. How is it fair to punish women for the government's incompetence? 

It is too soon to celebrate actual equality. Unless the current Constitution recognises the independent legal identity of women at par with men, women remain to be formally second-class citizens. 

Nepal's Constitution and citizenship laws violate the state's human rights commitment under international treaties. And denying citizenship serves as a strategic tool for state discrimination, enabling justification by labeling certain groups as non-citizens.

Many individuals born and raised by single mothers are silently weeping as they visit ward offices and CDOs trying to find what they did wrong, and how they are different from other children with fathers. 

These young Nepalis are not allowed to contribute to society, and this is a big loss to the country. Gender equality is always a win-win if only it is fairly implemented.

Read also: History of female (im)mobility in Nepal, Upasana Khadka

Neha Gurung

writer

Neha Gurung is a human rights lawyer and co-founder together with her mother of Citizenship Affected People’s Network and co-lead for the Global Movement Against Statelessness.

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