The 'sexist' nationality laws that leave children stateless
Neha Gurung, who is campaigning to end discriminatory nationality laws in Nepal, is pictured with her mother Deepti Gurung at the 2019 World Conference on Statelessness in The Hague. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Emma Batha
What’s the context?
More than 20 countries do not give mothers the same rights as fathers to pass their nationality onto their children
- World lagging on goal to end statelessness by 2024
- Millions not recognised as citizens of any state
- Reform calls expected at Geneva talks this week
Two dozen nations do not allow children to automatically inherit their mother's nationality, leaving many facing social and economic discrimination or even rendering them stateless - not recognised as citizens by any country.
In the first meeting of its kind, government ministers, U.N. officials and activists will gather on Tuesday in Geneva to press for reforms ahead of a 2024 global deadline for ending statelessness which is way off track.
Mothers say discriminatory nationality laws can impact their children's access to education, healthcare and jobs. They can also leave women trapped in abusive relationships for fear of losing custody of their children.
Which countries ban mothers from passing on their nationality?
Qatar, Kuwait, Brunei, Lebanon, Somalia and Eswatini do not let mothers confer nationality - or only with rare exceptions.
Another 18 countries only let children inherit their mother's nationality in some circumstances. These are The Bahamas, Burundi, Jordan, Libya, Oman, Sudan, Bahrain, Kiribati, Malaysia, Syria, Barbados, Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Togo, Iraq, Nepal and the United Arab Emirates.
Why is it important?
Discriminatory nationality laws fuel statelessness, reduce people's ability to contribute to society and can have a tragic impact on families, according to the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, which mobilises action for legal reforms.
Campaigner Nepa Gurung, who is due to speak at the summit, had dreamt of becoming a doctor in her native Nepal, but was barred from the entrance exam because she could not take her mother's nationality, leaving her stateless.
Stateless people are often deprived of basic rights including education, healthcare, housing and jobs, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Even buying a sim card, opening a bank account or obtaining a driving license may be fraught with difficulties, if not impossible.
Why do reforms matter in cases where a child can inherit their father's nationality?
In Kuwait for example, people with Kuwaiti mothers and foreign fathers do not enjoy the same legal rights as Kuwaiti nationals even if they have lived in the Gulf country their whole life.
They often earn far less, cannot own businesses, invest in the country or inherit their mother's property, according to one resident who estimated there were about 70,000 people in his situation in the Gulf country.
Habiba Al-Hinai, another speaker at the summit who campaigns for reforms in Oman, was shocked to discover her son could only inherit his German father's nationality.
When he was born premature she received a colossal hospital bill even though medical care is free for Omanis. Her son had to leave Oman when he was 18.
Although her son has German citizenship, she said many other children with Omani mothers and foreign fathers end up stateless.
Laws that prevent mothers passing on their citizenship can also increase the risk of statelessness during armed conflicts if a child's father is killed or disappears before the birth is registered.
Why did a group of Malaysian mothers sue their government over its law?
In 2021, six Malaysian women mounted a legal challenge over their country's "sexist and outdated" citizenship rules.
The government - which initially dismissed the lawsuit as "frivolous" - recently agreed to change the constitution, but it still needs to go before parliament.
Although Malaysian men married to foreign women can automatically pass their citizenship to children born abroad, Malaysian women married to foreign men cannot.
If they return home their children do not have the same rights to free education and healthcare as Malaysian children and will have to leave the country at 18.
Campaigners say it is not in Malaysia's interests to deter professional women from moving back to raise their families at a time when the country is keen to reverse a brain drain.
The unequal rules also risk trapping women in abusive relationships for fear they could be separated from their children if they leave their husbands.
Has there been any other progress?
Campaigners say there is growing willingness to take action.
Liberia removed gender discrimination from its nationality law last year while Nepal has introduced significant reforms this year.
In 2019, Iran amended its law to let women married to non-Iranians pass on their nationality, potentially ending the risk of statelessness for tens of thousands of children.
But it remains on the list as mothers still do not enjoy the same rights to confer nationality as fathers.
Other countries that have made full or partial reforms in the last decade include Suriname, Madagascar, Sierra Leone and the United Arab Emirates. Eswatini has also pledged to remove gender discrimination from its nationality law.
How many stateless people are there globally?
No one knows as stateless people are largely invisible. U.N. officials have previously estimated 10 million, but now say there is not enough data to support a reliable figure.
The four countries with the largest recorded stateless populations are Ivory Coast, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Thailand. They alone account for almost 3 million people without nationality.
In 2014, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, launched a global campaign to end statelessness by 2024 called #IBelong.
But only about 450,000 stateless people have gained citizenship in the last decade.
In 2019, Kyrgyzstan became the first country in the world to end statelessness on its territory.
Aside from reforming nationality laws, other countries have introduced safeguards to prevent childhood statelessness, signed the U.N. Statelessness Conventions and introduced mechanisms to identify stateless people on their territory.
But there has been little progress in finding solutions for some of the world's largest stateless populations, including the more than 1 million Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
(Reporting by Emma Batha in London; Editing by Helen Popper.)
- War and conflict
- Economic inclusion
- Underground economies