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The Deplorable Human Cost of Nationality and Citizenship Laws which Discriminate on the Basis of Sex

By Jacqui Hunt, London Director, Equality Now. February 2013.

A new worldwide report by Equality Now demands that nationality and citizenship laws, which discriminate on the basis of sex, should be urgently revised in line with international legal obligations.

The issue is truly global and affects at least 58 countries worldwide.

The fact that many governments continue to deny women equal rights to confer citizenship on their children and husbands is unacceptable and leads to the suffering of millions of women and their families. Despite repeated commitments by governments around the world to make moves to repeal such discriminatory laws, many have yet to translate policy into action.

Our campaign for equal nationality rights in Lebanon gave the example of Nour, who, despite having been born and raised in Lebanon, was married off at 15 to a relative in Egypt, to avoid the difficulties of being an adult in Lebanon without Lebanese nationality.  While the Lebanese government has taken several measures to ease the burden since then - especially in relation to children born in Lebanon who cannot claim nationality through their Lebanese mother - it has recently rejected a draft bill, which sought to properly address this inequality and remove the trauma and hardship of families such as Nour's. 

Meanwhile, in Malaysia, groups including Women's Aid Organisation, continue to campaign for equal rights for women and men in relation to nationality and citizenship.  Nina, a Malaysian woman, married Brian in the US.  They had a daughter, Julia, but moved to her home country in 2009.  Due to Brian's short-term immigration status, he found it impossible to find a job and both he and their daughter had to renew their visas on a regular basis.  Nina also faced difficulties trying to register Julia for public school, as she was not a Malaysian citizen.  After three years of frustration and considerable expense, Nina finally obtained Malaysian citizenship for her daughter.  Had Nina been a man, the process would have been automatic.

In Jordan, "My Mother is Jordanian and I Have a Right to Her Nationality" is a campaign led by Jordanian mothers, who are married to non-Jordanian men.  Jordanian women cannot extend citizenship to their children and husbands.  With the support of the Arab Women Organisation, members of the campaign are calling on the government to amend its citizenship laws in line with both the Jordanian constitution and Jordan's international legal obligations.  Testimony given to us directly illustrates some of the problems associated with the inability of Jordanian women to extend their nationality to their children and husbands.  In 2011, Maysar, a Jordanian woman, approached the Ministry of the Interior to apply for naturalisation.  Her application was refused by the officer in charge, who suggested that she should not have married a non-national.  Maysar would prefer that her daughters marry Jordanians, to ensure that they do not endure what she did.  Her husband works illegally in the construction sector, as he cannot afford the fees necessary for his work permit.  Equality Now calls on the Jordanian government to give women equal citizenship rights to men as a matter of urgency. 

Discriminatory laws are not only founded on stereotypes; they also reinforce stereotypical roles for both women and men.  Once married, a woman loses her independent identity; a child "belongs" to a father rather than a mother.  Where dual nationality is forbidden, women can be disadvantaged in terms of legal and social rights.  Such laws are also a major contributor to statelessness, as emphasised repeatedly by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Other negative outcomes for women include increased risk of forced, early or abusive marriage, lack of access to education, social and medical services and potential deportation of their children and husbands.

Losing her nationality of origin can leave a woman particularly vulnerable, if her marriage ends due to divorce or the death of her husband - particularly if her children have their father's nationality.  Even if a woman is able to subsequently claim back her nationality, delays and other hurdles in regaining citizenship can cause her considerable trauma, anxiety and other hardship.

While change is thankfully moving in the direction of gender equality, with respect to passing nationality to children, governments need to prioritise the elimination of all discrimination on the basis of sex, to comply with both their international legal obligations, as well as their own national obligations to ensure equal access to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.  National legislation should be revised so that women and men can extend citizenship to each other and to their children, regardless of whether they marry their spouse at home or abroad, or whether their children are born in or out of marriage.  This will ensure that there is consistency between all laws and regulations dealing with the issue.  It will also send a clear signal that everyone should be valued equally in a fairer society, where everyone can reach their full potential.

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