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Citizenship Isn't A Given. Women In Some Countries Can't Pass It Down.

Some citizenship laws can perpetuate gender inequality, activists say.
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Citizenship Isn't A Given. Women In Some Countries Can't Pass It Down.

When a child is born, they can inherit any number of things from their mother: her smile, her eyes, her nose. But in many cases, her citizenship is not one of those things.

That's because in 26 countries, women can't pass down their citizenship to their children.

"Without a citizenship certificate ... you're not a human being. Because for every step in our life, we need this citizenship certificate," Nepali citizen Deepti Gurung said.

Several of these countries are crafting initiatives for women's empowerment and gender equality — except when it comes to letting them pass down their citizenship.

Advocates pose the question: Can you really have gender equality if women aren't allowed such a basic right?

Catherine Harrington of the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights said: "In our interconnected world, you know that where there's growing inequality intention in any country in the world, that's ultimately going to have ripple effects everywhere. And so ensuring equality under the law, particularly under something as fundamental as access to citizenship itself, is really critical to peaceful, stable societies."

Despite creating a new constitution in 2015, Nepal has been accused of gender discrimination when it comes to assigning citizenship. The child of a Nepali woman married to a foreigner can only become a citizen through naturalization. If a Nepali man marries a foreigner, any child he has is automatically a citizen.

As for Gurung, whom we mentioned earlier, after a legal fight for two years, a Nepalese court said she could pass down her country's citizenship to her daughters. She wrote she is still wants to fight for others affected by laws in Nepal.

"If I could get my citizenship certificate, if my children could study. ... My life has been ruined, but I hope to make their future brighter," said Sapana Pariyar, who lives in Nepal.

No particular region is more likely to have these kinds of laws; they're found everywhere. And everywhere they exist, those affected suffer the same consequences.

Prior to its reform in 2010, the Kenyan constitution discriminated against women who had children abroad. This made obtaining education in Kenya difficult for those children.

"When I went they told me: 'You're not even Kenyan; your dad is not Kenyan.' At that time I was in college. I was supposed to sit for my exams, and you're not allowed to do the exam if you don’t have the ID because you're considered not Kenyan," said Kenya resident Francine Odoi.

While Kenya has since reformed its laws, her experience before the change is similar to what others still face.

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, these kinds of discriminatory nationality laws are often at the root of statelessness.

And statelessness means no birth certificate, no passport and no way to leave a country. So if conflict arises, stateless people are stuck.

"As a Syrian woman, it's very difficult for me to give my nationality to my children. And that in and of itself is a problem. However, when you add a conflict situation to this issue ... you can imagine the multitude of scenarios where a child cannot prove a legal link to the father," said Zahra Albarazi, senior researcher at the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion.

Women affected by discriminatory nationality laws are often citizens themselves. But because they can't pass down their citizenship and property or provide for their families, they say they feel degraded.

"It really takes a significant toll on the emotional well-being of affected individuals," Harrington said.

While women are the main victims of these laws, some countries have loopholes that prevent single fathers from passing down citizenship.

One of those countries? The U.S.

Supreme Court case is contesting that policy.

That case references an act from 1952. It doesn't let an unmarried father pass down U.S. citizenship to his child if the father didn't live in the U.S. for at least 10 years before his child was born.

Advocates say there are benefits for countries that move to change their laws.

"Instances where individuals might not be convinced of the necessity to reform these laws on the human rights violations that exist because of these laws and the impact — the severe impact that these laws have on affected families — we can talk about with governments the impact it has on the country as a whole toward sustainable economic development," Harrington said.

These laws may be inspired by past colonial rule. But as advocates look ahead, they say they're hopeful that nationality laws won't be barriers to citizenship in the future.