We all have dreams and aspirations that fuel our efforts in our work, education, and lives. However, for many children and adults living in Nepal, there is a real barrier towards achieving their dreams, via the discriminatory citizenship provisions of Nepal’s constitution, which serves to prevent access to citizenship for many people living in the country. Without citizenship, individuals cannot vote, obtain a passport or driver’s license, sit for entrance exams for college and university, own or transfer land, or obtain jobs that require a bank account and taxes to be deducted. Elderly who have not been able to obtain a citizenship certificate also suffer, as they cannot collect social security benefits, but become too disabled to work. Despite the new constitution’s provision that states, “Any person whose father or mother was citizen of Nepal at the birth of such person,” there are various provisions that place conditions on obtaining a citizenship certificate that are deemed discriminatory towards women and their children, and prevent them from living full lives. Today is March 8th, International Women’s Day. With this year’s theme being Pledge for Parity, Nepal Monitor.org wishes to highlight women’s struggle for citizenship, and the inequalities they face when trying to obtain citizenship for themselves, spouses, and children. We hope this article brings some insight into this aspect of inequality in Nepal, and acts as our own pledge towards equal rights and opportunities for women and children.
I went in a team from NepalMonitor.org to meet with Subin Mulmi, an activist and advocate at the Forum for Women, Law and Development, who discussed with us the issues people face in obtaining citizenship. Graduating from the Kathmandu School of Law, he chooses to use his skills to analyze the law and provide legal counsel for individuals. He has been working at FWLD for almost two years. When asked about how he became interested in citizenship and women’s issues, he acknowledged his mother who is a feminist and human rights activist herself. He said that women’s rights is more special for him and easier to connect to because of seeing his mother work on cases.
According to a recent study conducted by the Forum on Women, Law and Development, researchers estimate that 23.65% of the population age 16 and above are lacking a citizenship certificate. We discuss who suffers the most from Nepal’s citizenship laws. Mr. Mulmi speaks of women, poorer people from lower caste communities in Nepal, as well as individuals who do not have contacts within the government or money. Women suffer the most, including victims of rape, and women whose husbands who abandon them before the children are born and marries someone else. During the armed conflict, the Nepalese army as well as Maoist combatants married women, impregnated them, and then left.
If a woman has a child, but the father is absent, it can be virtually impossible to obtain citizenship for the child unless the mother has the citizenship documents of the child’s father or brother. There is a process called a muchulka, where government officials go to the residence of the mother and ask questions of family and neighbors who have to attest to the father’s citizenship, but according to Mr. Mulmi this is not regularly implemented.
Additionally, for the child of a single woman to obtain citizenship by descent, the child must be born in Nepal. This discriminates against children of trafficked women, migrant women who travel abroad for work, as well as women traveling for education and other pursuits. Additionally, if a woman has married a foreigner and is applying for citizenship of her child, the child may only obtain naturalized citizenship. This does not apply for male Nepali citizens applying for their children however, where the children are entitled to citizenship by descent.
When we asked Mr. Mulmi why the Nepal government has continued to block less discriminatory provisions that would help women obtain citizenship for themselves and their children, he responded that there is no political will to change this, and political leaders are conservative nationalists that fear “Indianization”. He explains that at one time, then-prime minister Barburam Bhattarai publicly agreed to change the citizenship provisions and was supported by the UCPN-Maoist party, but party members from CPN-UML, including Bhim Rawal and Jhalanath Khanal, blocked the decision while members from Nepali Congress were divided on the subject. Especially now, with ongoing protests in the south, many political leaders are blaming the Madhesi community and India. Mr. Mulmi mentions, “They fail to see themselves as the problem, and they are very proud. They will not provide equal rights to women. They perceive it as a risk of millions of Indians obtaining Nepali citizenship.”
Mr. Mulmi also discussed the topic of citizenship used in political campaigning. Before the election of the first Constitutional Assembly, politicians used “citizenship teams” and mobile camps to distribute citizenship certificates in order to increase the number of constituents who could vote for them. In the second Constitutional Assembly election, roughly 600,000 people obtained citizenship, as the possession of a citizenship certificate had become a prerequisite to be register on the new biometric voter role.
Another meeting that provided us with an inside look at the issue of citizenship was with Ms. Dipti Gurung, an activist and single mother who has been fighting for her daughters’ citizenship for more than a decade. She herself has Nepalese citizenship, but has been unable to obtain it for her daughters. She brings up the harrowing stories of government officials humiliating her when she requested citizenship certificates, mocking her efforts, saying that her daughters just needed to marry and obtain citizenship through their husbands. She has even been introduced a “virgin mother” by a CDO officer in Lalitpur in an attempt to shame her when she went to plead her case at the CDO’s office.
She recounts the heartbreaking story of her daughter who was not permitted to take the MBBS entrance exam to pursue a career as a doctor. She decided to work towards a degree in law instead. Her younger daughter faced trouble in completing the SLC forms to enter high school, and she had to bring her case to the supreme court. She luckily received a favorable ruling, and the district education office had to accept her daughter’s forms and let her take the exam.
Her case reached the attention of then-prime minister Baburam Bhattarai when she emailed him and sent the story of her citizenship struggles. She and her family, including her husband who is also lacking citizenship were invited to the Singha Durbar. The prime minister ordered that they be given citizenship, but when she went to the Home Ministry the next day, the CDO of Lalitpur as well as the other men at the ministry wanted her to name the father of her children to complete a DNA test. When Ms. Gurung refused, they would not issue the citizenship certificates.
She knows she is not the only one who suffers. She mentions a woman in Bhaktapur who committed suicide in 2013 when she was not able to pass her citizenship onto her 18-year old son and was shamed by officials who said she could not keep track of her husband. Another woman from Kathmandu attempted suicide in 2013 when she was not permitted to pass her citizenship onto her two children. The issue of citizenship can be extremely emotionally and psychologically damaging. As Ms. Gurung puts it, “You’re a fugitive in your own country. You’re questioned in front of society on the character of your mother. With no identity, you are invisible. Even refugees have more power than the stateless in Nepal.”
Since her experience at the Home Ministry, Ms. Gurung has fought for constitutional change along with Subin Mulmi and others at the FWLD. She has started a Facebook page called Citizenship in the name of the Mother to bring together individuals facing barriers to citizenship, as well as create awareness of the issues. She has also co-organized rallies with Mr. Mulmi, participating in public protests and poetry slams. She wants to eventually be able to conduct more research on stateless individuals in Nepal, completing a documentary on the victims all over the country. Lastly, she would love to establish a team who would advocate nationally and internationally for stateless individuals so people would truly understand what the victims of citizenship laws really go through.
Ironically, if Ms. Gurung had left her children in the street to fend for themselves, they would have been given citizenship by naturalization a long time ago. Instead of supporting single women in Nepal, the provisions of the constitution only serves to hinder them in caring for their children and trying to ensure a bright future. No child is born illegally or by fault of its own, and to be denied the practice of basic rights in its own country is unacceptable. The issue of access to citizenship is one that warrants a new look from the Nepalese government to help its people live fuller lives where their hopes and dreams can be realized.
Subin Mulmi may be reached at the Forum on Women, Law and Development (email@example.com , 9841444787)
To reach out to Deepti Gurung, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
or via phone at 9818310486.
Also please visit the Citizenship in the Name of the Mother Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ornotand/?fref=ts