(WOMENSENEWS)– Nepal’s new constitution is being hailed as a historic first in a country transitioning from a 239-year monarchy. After a decade-long civil war and this year’s devastating earthquakes, Nepal’s lawmakers moved to replace its interim draft with a final constitution.
Nepali and international activists rejoiced over the constitution’s protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. It also grants equal property rights for women, criminalizes violence against women based on cultural, religious or traditional practices and sets aside 33 percent of parliamentary seats for women.
That’s why women’s rights advocates are shocked that the Constituent Assembly–despite energetic protests in the lead up to the vote–rejected a proposed amendment that would have allowed all women to confer citizenship onto their children. The final version of Nepal’s Constitution, adopted Sept. 16, bars single mothers from conferring citizenship by descent and married women from conferring citizenship to children born to foreign fathers.
The final draft of the constitution, which leaves millions of people born in Nepal stateless, was met by women’s rights advocates with a mix with of anger and exhaustion.
“Our bodies are considered mere vessels for men to pass on their nationality, be that foreign or Nepali,” wrote author Manjushree Thapa in an essay response.
On Twitter, journalist Subina Shrestha asked whether the United Nations should welcome Nepal’s new constitution given its unequal citizenship provisions.
Meanwhile women’s rights advocates are preparing their next move, but pausing their protests due to the constitution’s aftermath of violence in the country’s southern belt.
The constitution has led to protests near the India-Nepal border that have left over 45 people dead as Nepal’s Tharu and Madhesi ethnic communities say lawmakers ignored their demands. The constitution sets the country up as a secular federation with seven states, but ethnic groups are dismayed with the border divisions and want political autonomy over local matters. The Madhesis also say the unequal citizenship laws disproportionately impact their community, which has many cross-border marriages with Indian citizens.
The protests have imposed unofficial blockades of the India-Nepal border routes, cutting off the fuel supply into Nepal and straining the economy. With one protesting group agreeing to talks with the government, the violence could soon curtail.
In light of these events, women’s groups will challenge Nepal’s citizenship laws in national courts, or will soon express their grievances in an international setting, said Asmita Manandhar, an organizer of the women’s protests and a program officer at the Women’s Rehabilitation Center (WOREC), in an email from Kathmandu.
Joining 27 Other Countries
Nepal joins 27 countries with these “dependent nationality” laws, often linked to the idea that women should take their husband’s nationalities.
In Nepal, advocates believe the provision to allow all mothers to confer citizenship was blocked by lawmakers who feel foreigners marrying Nepali women is a threat to the country’s sovereignty.
In Nepal, citizenship documents are required for obtaining a passport, registering births, buying or selling land, opening bank accounts and registering to vote. Advocates believe Nepal’s citizenship laws contribute to its estimated 4.3 million stateless people. These numbers grow each year.
“This problem is multiplying because stateless people are giving birth to children who simply cannot apply for citizenship,” lawyer Sabin Shrestha of the Forum for Women, Law and Development in Nepal told the Inter Press Service in 2014.
For women who have been trafficked or raped, gaining citizenship for themselves and their children is onerous if not impossible. Citizenship obstacles were among the top challenges for sex trafficking survivors reintegrating into society, according to a study by the anti-trafficking organizations WOREC and Shakti Samuha.
Mother-daughter activist team Neha and Deepti Gurung know Nepal’s citizenship laws painfully well.
Neha Gurung’s father has never been part of her life, but under Nepal’s unchanged laws, he is still the only parent who can register her and her sister’s births. This has left her and her sister stateless, the consequence of which is more than symbolic. Being stateless means she can’t acquire the proof of identity needed to get a SIM card for her cell phone or drive a motor scooter to college. The once aspiring doctor was prohibited from moving onto the next level of her exams to qualify for medical school. Unsurprisingly, she has now changed her degree to law.
“I am right now like a prisoner in my own country,” Neha Gurung said in an email interview from Kathmandu. She wants to do a study-abroad program, but her stateless status bars her from obtaining a passport to travel outside of Nepal.
To educate people about the plight of stateless people in Nepal, Deepti Gurung started a Facebook page called “Citizenship in the name of mother” in September 2014 that quickly swelled to over 4,000 members. As Nepal edged its way toward finalizing the constitution in 2015, the group served as a space for organizers.
One of these groups was the Collective Campaign for Women-Friendly Constitution, a network of six women’s rights organizations that held a variety of protests from the end of July until the constitution’s adoption.
Women’s rights protesters slept in the streets, shined torchlights, clanked pots and plates, whistled out their demands and staged a two-week long hunger strike in September. Some protests drew fewer than 30 demonstrators; but others were much larger, including a mass rally on Sept. 10 with 6,000 people. Although only a small group of women participated in the hunger strike, the space they sat in had to be expanded to accommodate over 50 people who came to support them, including political leaders.
The women’s means of protesting were intentionally collaborative and creative, said WOREC’s Asmita who helped organize the collective rallies.
Traditional means of protesting — like holding banners and chanting — were not drawing in Nepal’s youth. But more pressing was the fact that the women’s rights protesters were vying for the attention of the public, media and lawmakers amid other mass rallies going on against the constitution in Kathmandu.
Online, the Twitter campaigns under #CitizenshipThroughMother evolved into #WomenTakeoverNepal where hundreds of female protesters surged Kathmandu in a last-minute effort for change.
count us in! 5000 and counting!! people of multi generations echo the same demand! My body! My autonomy! #womentakeovernepal
— jyotsna maskay (@JMaskay) September 9, 2015
— ursula singh (@singhursula) September 9, 2015
— Mona Shrestha (@mona_stha) September 9, 2015
Fight for Identity
Last March 9, on International Women’s Day, Neha Gurung stood before hundreds of people in Kathmandu and performed a poem about Nepal’s citizenship laws, which have left her stateless in her country of birth.
“This is a fight for identity, the identity she gave me and the identity I have known,” she said, pointing to her mother who joined her onstage.
For Deepti Gurung, the outcome has caused her to reconsider working in tourism to start her own organization for stateless people and a support group for women with foreign partners. She wants to call the organization “Astitwa,” which means identity in Nepali.
She has also resigned herself to the reality that, in order for her daughters to continue their educations, she will have to request their citizenship the only legal way she can — by claiming that their father is “unidentified.”
“Though this may sound like good news, it brings even more injustice to women,” she said.
Under this law, Deepti Gurung can say she does not know who the father of her children is, which would allow them to get citizenship through descent. She is frustrated that this law requires women to discuss past relationships when the same rule does not apply to men.
“It angers me that my 20 minute relationship with Mr. X is much more important [in law] than my 20 years of a dedicated relationship with my daughters,” she said.
This sentiment was at the heart of Neha Gurung’s International Women’s Day poem when she questioned why the law recognizes the identity of her father, who she considers a stranger, over her mother who has always supported her.
“I hope the day will come when I and my two daughters will one day in the true sense be able to celebrate women’s day,” Deepti Gurung said.
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