The Violence of Gender Discrimination in Nationality Laws

Upon first glance, gender-based violence (GBV) and laws pertaining to citizenship may seem worlds apart. In fact, there are significant links between women’s nationality rights and GBV.  During these #16Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, it is a good time to consider how gender discrimination in nationality laws contributes to violence against women and girls.

Nationality laws determine the ability to acquire, change, and retain one’s citizenship, as well as the ability to pass citizenship to children and non-national spouses. Though traditionally the nationality of wives and children was based on the nationality of the husband/father, over the 20th century most countries reformed their nationality laws (and gave women the right to vote!), enabling women and men to confer citizenship on an equal basis.

However, today 27 countries still deny mothers the equal right to confer nationality on their children. Roughly 50 countries maintain other gender-discriminatory provisions in their nationality laws, such as denying women the right to equally confer nationality on spouses, or stripping women of their citizenship due to their marital status.  

When children do not have the right to their mother’s nationality, they are at risk of being stateless, a status whereby no state recognizes an individual as a citizen.* UNHCR conservatively estimates that there are over 10 million stateless persons worldwide. In addition to being a leading cause of statelessness, these laws impact several forms of gender-based violence and result in other human rights abuses:

  • Domestic Violence: Gender discrimination in nationality laws can increase the obstacles faced by women attempting to leave abusive marriages and protect their children from abusers.  For example, in some countries, if a woman acquires another nationality through marriage with a foreign man, she may be stripped of that nationality upon divorce even if she resides in the country, potentially losing her ability to work, own land, or even remain in that country – thereby threatening her ability to care for her children. Similarly, if a woman has children with a man of a different nationality, but those children only have access to the father’s nationality, it may be difficult for her to return to her home country with her children when attempting to flee an abusive environment.  
  • Human Trafficking: Research has shown that stateless women and girls are at an increased risk of being trafficked. Some of the reasons why stateless women and girls are at greater risk of human trafficking include obstacles they face in accessing education, formal employment, documentation, and freedom of movement. Statelessness is also linked with high poverty rates, depression, and feelings of hopelessness exploited by traffickers.
  • Child Marriage: Due to the lack of opportunity and insecurity caused by gender-discriminatory nationality laws, some families view early marriage as a route to greater security for their daughters, who can access citizenship and therefore legal status through their husbands. Conversely, when child marriage occurs in countries that prohibit the practice, those marriages often go unregistered. In countries where women are unable to independently confer nationality, a missing marriage certificate means that children born of that union are at great risk of statelessness. With higher rates of child marriage among displaced populations from several countries with gender discriminatory nationality laws – including Syria and Iraq – the number of newborns at risk of stateless among this population increases. 

  • Obstacles to Treatment and Services for GBV Survivors: Those without citizenship due to gender discrimination in nationality laws may lack accessing to public healthcare, inhibiting treatment for GBV survivors, including sexual and reproductive healthcare.

Outside of the forms of GBV listed above, gender discrimination in nationality laws has an even more fundamental link with GBV – one that has a harmful impact on a country’s entire population. Discriminatory nationality laws contribute to the primary root cause of gender-based violence: women’s unequal status in society.

When a State holds women’s citizenship as encompassing less rights than that of men, it shows that all citizens are really not equal, despite what any Constitution might claim. It shows that rights can be granted and denied based on gender. Gender discrimination in nationality laws implicitly endorses the idea that women should naturally hold less power than men, that they are beneath men, that the father is the ‘head of the household’ and the legitimate source of identity.

Scholarship on gender-based violence has overwhelmingly pointed to women’s unequal status as the primary root cause of violence against women and girls around the world. While every government has asserted their commitment to combating gender-based violence, this commitment requires that these governments take action to end gender discrimination in nationality laws and remove gender-discriminatory provisions from all laws.  

 

*There are many reasons why children may not be able to acquire their father’s nationality, such as: if the father lacks identity documents or is stateless himself; if the father does not recognize the child; if the father is unknown; or if the father’s country does not permit conferral of nationality due to the father’s status. Several countries do not allow unmarried fathers to confer nationality. For these reasons, the Convention on the Rights of the Child upholds children’s right to a nationality and bans discrimination based on the gender of the child’s parents.