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 25 countries still deny mothers the equal right to confer nationality on their children. Approximately 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 on the basis of their marital status.  

When children do not have the right to their mother’s nationality, they are at risk of being stateless, meaning no state recognizes them as a citizen.* The UN Refugee Agency conservatively estimates that there are over 10 million stateless persons worldwide; other experts estimate the number is roughly 15 million. Gender discrimination in nationality laws is a root cause of statelessness and causes other wide-ranging human rights violations and hardships for affected persons. Gender-discriminatory nationality laws are also linked with multiple forms of gender-based violence:

  • 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 her foreign spouse's nationality through marriage, 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. Stateless women and girls face obstacles in accessing education, formal employment, and identity documentation. Statelessness is also linked with high poverty rates, marginalization, and exclusion – all factors 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. At the same time, 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 on their children, a missing marriage certificate often means that children born of that union are rendered statelessness. With higher rates of child marriage among displaced populations from several countries with gender-discriminatory nationality laws – including Syria and Iraq – there is an even greater risk of children being born into statelessness. 

  • Obstacles to Accessing Services and Justice for GBV Survivors: Those without citizenship due to gender discrimination in nationality laws may lack access to public healthcare, inhibiting treatment for GBV survivors, including sexual and reproductive healthcare. Those without legal status also face obstacles in accessing justice systems, inhibiting prosecution of perpetrators. 

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.

Scholarship on gender-based violence has overwhelmingly found that women’s unequal status is a primary root cause of violence against women and girls around the world. Gender-discriminatory nationality laws fundamentally undermine women's equal citizenship. Such laws implicitly demonstrate the state's position that all citizens are in fact not equal and that the rights and responsibilities of citizens may be granted or denied on the basis of gender. Gender discrimination in nationality laws reflects a sexist framework whereby the father is considered to be the ‘head of the household’ and the legitimate source of family identity, and women 'naturally' follow their spouse.

Governments around the world have asserted their commitment to combating gender-based violence. However, a true commitment to ending gender-based violence requires government 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.