| Pratibha Tuladhar |
KATHMANDU (dpa) – Whenever single mother Deepti Gurung approached authorities to get citizenship documents for her children, she often had to confront humiliation and harassment.
She was interrogated aggressively by officials demanding to know how she could be a mother without a husband?
“Meet the virgin mother,” a chief district officer once said to his colleagues, motioning at Gurung.
Nepal citizenship is passed down by fathers. Citizenship documents issued at the age of 16 allow people to vote, apply for a driving license, passport, higher studies and to set up a bank account or own property.
The interim constitution of 2006 says a person is entitled to citizenship as long as one parent is Nepali. But the provision has been largely confined to paper, and mothers like Gurung are still making rounds of government offices, begging for their rights.
The 41-year-old woman was alarmed when her teenage daughters were barred from applying to university because they were not recognised as citizens. Gurung is not alone.
Diwakar Chettri, a man in his early 40s, finds himself “trapped” in Nepal because he does not possess Nepali citizenship. Raised by his mother, he learnt of his stateless status when she failed to locate his deceased father’s citizenship document.
According to the Forum for Women Law and Development, 4,346,046 people do not have citizenship because they have not been able to inherit it from their mothers in the country of 30 million population.
The interim government is now considering a proposal that would legally require both parents to be Nepali. Mothers would be able to confer citizenship only under extraordinary circumstances, such as rape.
“We are stateless people. What can we do for our children when they cannot participate in society or represent themselves?” Gurung said. “Why can’t they give us citizenship? The men in top posts fear women will be empowered.”
The male-dominated political class argues that the restriction is necessary to protect sovereignty from uncontrolled immigration, because about 20,000 Nepali women marry Indian men each year.
Chettri insists that it is the task of the government to build mechanisms to ensure that citizenship is issued correctly, instead of building barriers.
“The male politicians usually say we have an open border so anyone could be a citizen. But no one can be a citizen just by crossing the border,” said Sapana Pradhan Malla, an advocate and former legislator.
“The law is formulated by men, which is based on patriarchal values. So, only men can confer citizenship.”
Activists reject the immigration argument. They say that if the state gives people the right to chose their spouses, it should also allow the fundamental right to residence.
“Should women always go to someone else’s house after marriage? Either you make rules saying you can’t marry foreigners and say you don’t want to be an open country that is part of global nation, or you can’t have double standards,” Malla said.
A Nepali man who marries a foreigner can legally confer citizenship on his wife immediately. But a foreigner who marries a Nepali woman has to wait for 15 years before he can apply for citizenship under the “naturalisation” category. Even though the government decided to allow citizenship under the 2006 interim constitution, the right has been flouted by male authorities.
“There are many cases where the local government has not given recommendations to people as it would enable them to apply for official documents. The chief district officer will not register or will refuse to forward a recommendation to the Home Ministry on various pretexts,” Malla said.
The drafting process for a new constitution is dominated by contentious issues like state restructuring and form of governance. The issue of citizenship is not even on the agenda, which Malla said is because of the absence of women in the political class.
The Supreme Court issued a recent verdict in a related case, saying a person should have right to citizenship if either one of the parents is a Nepali citizen.
But the proposed law would nullify that ruling.
“If they call it nationalism, then it is nationalism from the male point of view,” Malla said. “Is exclusion nationalism? Is restricting women nationalism?”