ALICIA WALLACE: There are no excuses left, it is time to end discrimination in nationality laws


Alicia Wallace

YESTERDAY, I attended the Global Summit on Gender Equality in Nationality Laws, held at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland, and streamed for the hundreds of online registrants. Moderated by international journalist Yvonne Ndege, the event opened with comments from UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi who drew attention to Article 9 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which focuses on gender-equal nationality rights. He also referenced the Convention on the Rights of the Child which included the right of all children to be registered immediately after birth and to acquire a nationality. This, from the very beginning, rooted the event and its target in international human rights mechanisms. In particular, it connected the issue to two human rights treaties that many countries have ratified.

Grandi went on to point out that the right to nationality is linked to many other rights, including the right to education, and this became a thread that ran through all of the sessions at the Global Summit — that the denial of nationality rights affects the ability of individuals to access other human rights and this has an impact on society and the ability of countries to achieve their goals, whether economic or social.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees listed five key actions for governments to take regarding gender inequality in nationality law. The first is for those who have not already done so to ratify CEDAW, and 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless People, and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. The second is for all countries that have ratified CEDAW to remove reservations on Article 9. Note that The Bahamas has reservations on Articles 2(a) and 9(2) which are related to the continued failure of The Bahamas to remove gender-based discrimination from nationality law. Third, Grandi called for countries to make pledges to reform gender-discriminatory laws on nationality at the Global Refugee Forum in December 2023. Fourth, he called for countries with gender-discriminatory nationality law to develop time-bound plans to reform those laws. The final key action is for governments that have already eliminated gender-discriminatory nationality law to share the benefits of that reform and encourage other countries to do the same.

Grandi noted to the IBelong campaign, launched in November 2014 will end next year. A new initiative, the Global Alliance to End Statelessness, will launch at that time with the goal of using a multi-stakeholder approach to accelerate solutions on statelessness by 2030.

Later in the day, there was a panel that included mothers who have been and continue to be affected by gender inequality in nationality law. Habiba Al-Hinai, a human rights defender from Oman, always an incredible speaker, moved everyone in attendance with her story. After applying for permission from the government, she married a German man. When she gave birth to her son, he needed additional medical care and she was shocked to receive the bill. When she questioned it, she was told that her son is a foreigner. She noted that he was her child and when she entered the hospital, she was treated as an Omani. The staff told her that from the moment her son left her womb, he was a foreigner. This was only the beginning of the shocks she experienced. At the age of 18, her son would have to apply for residency in what would have been their home country. This bleak future led Habiba and her family to leave the country.

We also heard from Gaithiri Siva, a Malaysian mother who is a part of the Impacted Mothers Network at Family Frontiers. She was working for a Malaysian company when she was transferred to the US for what was supposed to be a short stint. It went on for much longer than expected, and it was there that she gave birth to her daughter. This child did not automatically become a Malaysian citizen. Gaithiri travelled to Malaysia often, so she submitted the citizenship application for her daughter there. At that time, she was told that it could take up to two years, so she prepared for the wait. Three years later, the COVID-19 pandemic started and borders closed. She received news that her father had terminal cancer, and she began making arrangements to return to Malaysia. The application for her three-year-old daughter to travel with her was rejected on the basis that she was not Malaysian.

Gaithiri said that she never, even in her worst nightmares, thought that she would be in the situation where she had to choose between her father and her child. She never imagined that she would not be able to return to Malaysia because her daughter was not a citizen. She made at least five additional applications for her daughter to travel, and they were either rejected or ignored. It was only when she went to the media that she received approval and was able to travel to Malaysia with her daughter and spend time with her father before he died.

These women are fierce activists. Whether in the countries they consider to be home or not, they are raising their voices and refusing to back down. This issue is personal to them because their children have not been granted citizenship, and political as it is one example of gender inequality. Gaithiri noted that it is difficult to make Malaysia home when her child is denied basic human rights like education and health. She gave the example of having to rush her daughter to the emergency room and receiving a bill that was doubled because her child is a non-citizen. She said, “I cannot fully describe how it feels to have your country reject your child.”

In conversations about gender inequality in nationality law, it is always pointed out that men do not have to face the dilemma that many women do. Women have to decide whether or not they will stay in countries where their children’s rights are violated. They have to figure out how to make another country their home if they decide to leave. If they stay, they must face hours and hours of their time and significant amounts of money being spent advocating for their children’s rights and ensuring their needs are met when governments refuse to do their part. Some women, to avoid this situation, risk their lives to go to their home countries to give birth, where it may be significantly less safe, just so that their children get their nationalities. Gender inequality in nationality law limits the autonomy of women, narrows their choices, and can put them at higher risk of violence and make it more difficult for them to leave abusive relationships.

The Global Summit on Gender Equal Nationality Laws closed with comments from Neha Gurung from the Citizenship Affected Persons Network in Nepal. Neha’s mother advocated without ceasing for Neha to have access to her nationality. They are both activists, working on this issue together. Neha said her mother often questions how every citizen in the country could have the same citizenship card, all in the same colour, of the same size, and containing the same information, yet the rights they afford to the holder depends on their gender. It is an excellent question, and there is no answer that would not expose the deeply rooted patriarchy and misogyny that underpin discriminatory laws.

The Bahamas has been discussing the issue of gender-discriminatory nationality law for years. The referendum on this issue was held in 2014, following inadequate preparation by the government and intermittent participation of civil society due to the changing of the referendum dates and limited resources. The recent ruling by the Privy Council resolved the issue for Bahamian men with children born out of wedlock, but women continue to be discriminated against. On more than one occasion, when asked about the promised amendments to the Bahamas Nationality Act, government officials said they were waiting for the Privy Council ruling so that all three of the issues — Bahamian women unable to confer citizenship on their children, Bahamian women unable to confer citizenship on their spouses, and Bahamian men unable to confer citizenship on their children out of wedlock — could be dealt with at once. There are no excuses left. The ruling is in, and the time is now.

Those affected by gender inequality in nationality law who would like to participate in the advocacy for legal reform are welcome to contact Equality Bahamas via email at equalitybahamas@gmail.com.

The recording of the Summit will soon be available online. It will be shared by the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, and Equality Bahamas will share it on its social media channels.


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