8-14 March 2013 #646

Nepal’s gender apartheid

The real day for women is still a long way away in Nepal
Deepti Gurung
I have lost count of the number of times I have visited the CDO and Ward offices to try to register the birth of my daughters so they can become citizens of Nepal. Men sitting behind desks have reminded me that my husband’s identity is a must if my children are to be citizens of my country.

Out of sheer exasperation, last week I wrote to Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai about the gross violation of the human right of my children to citizenship. I told him about Nepali children being prisoners in their own motherland. I wrote about my own case: a woman gets married at a young age, a child is born, and the man abandons the family. The mother works hard to bring up her children, but they are deemed stateless and forced to grow up in a land that doesn’t even accept their existence.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I opened my email the next day. There was a message from the PM’s personal assistant: ‘The prime minster wishes to meet you and your family regarding your citizenship issue and he has taken it with priority.’ I was speechless with anticipation. A new horizon of hope had opened up.

Next morning, I went with my family to meet the prime minister in Singha Darbar (pic, above). Below an imposing picture of Mt Everest, Prime Minister Bhattarai greeted us with a smile and heard us out. He had summoned the chief secretary and men from the ministries. The PM agreed that citizenship must be granted in the name of the mother, and asked the officials: “If we have endorsed laws on gender equality, why does this problem persist?” He directed the officials to ‘use common sense’ and look into our case.

Things moved fast, the very next day we were summoned to the Home Ministry. The CDO was also there and we told our story all over again: that my daughters are born from a Nepali father who left us 15 years ago and doesn’t want to have anything to do with us.

The CDO looked sceptical. He agreed that we live in a patriarchal society, but he said emotions had no place in law. My children could get citizenship if the father is identified and in case the father denies paternity, a DNA test could resolve it. But if the children’s father is not Nepali they can’t be given citizenship because otherwise “bhanja bhanjis” (his words, meaning nieces and nephews) from across the border may swamp us and threaten our national security. So unless there is an amendment to the constitutional provisions for citizens he can’t do anything.

Prime Minister Bhattarai’s intention of creating a just and egalitarian Nepal is noble, but he has no chance if these are the officials who have to implement his policies. I have come to the sad conclusion that if a revolutionary can’t change the laws to make them more just, then no one can. It seems laws are only made to force citizens to pay their way out of the problem.

Nepali women are discriminated against at all levels, but they face a further ostracisation on the issue of citizenship. The most inclusive elected national assembly in our nation’s history, before it was dissolved last year, had a draft provision on citizenship that was even more regressive than the interim constitution. Under it, only children of Nepali mothers and a Nepali fathers will be eligible to citizenship which means a Nepali mother who can’t prove the father is Nepali (because he is not, because he left her, because she doesn’t have one, because she was raped) can’t have children who are Nepali. The CDO said the following documents are needed for children to get citizenship in the name of the mother:

1 Father’s citizenship

2 Father and mother’s marriage certificate

3 Recommendation from District Development Officer or Village Development Officer (confirming the child has been conceived by the parents).

Nepal’s citizenship act says that any unclaimed children found within the country’s territorial boundary will be considered Nepali until the time their biological parents are identified. So if I deliberately abandon my children on the streets they will get citizenship, but not if I follow procedures and go to the CDO office?

Nepal has one of the most progressive gay, lesbian, and transgender rights in the region. Theoretically, if I went to Thailand and got a sex change operation and came back as the father of my daughters, I could get them citizenship over the counter.

The Supreme Court made a very important decision on the Sabina Damai case and ruled that children can get citizenship in the name of their mother if the child is conceived because of multiple physical relationships by the mother and the mother cannot pinpoint the real father. But what if the children are born from the mother’s relationship with a husband who has abandoned her? We punish the offspring who are already punished.

When I started a Facebook page ‘Citizenship in the Name of Mother’ I realised there are tens of thousands of Nepali mothers like me. In Nepal’s gender apartheid, the very existence of women can be only certified by men: father, brother, husband, father-in-law, brother-in-law, uncles.

Children without citizenship can’t give SLC exams, can’t apply for a driving licence, they have no bank account, no right to vote, no passport. The fear of Indians swarming across the border to become Nepalis is misplaced: why would a Bihari want to be a citizen of Nepal when there are no jobs and we have such primitive laws on citizenship? Is our national sovereignty so fickle that it sees its own women as a security threat?

Gender activists and lawyers have been fighting a lonely battle against a political, bureaucratic and legal system that is weighted against women.

My suggestion is that if a husband and wife are living separately and the child has been brought up solely by the mother without any financial help from the father, the law must give the mother the right to pass on her name to her child and grant her citizenship.

Nepali father + Foreign mother = Nepali child
Nepali mother + Foreign father = Stateless child
Raped mother + Fatherless child = Stateless child
Disgraced mother + Unknown father = Stateless child
Unmarried mother + Unclaimed father = Stateless child
Divorced mother + Stepfather not in mood to own up = Stateless child
Working mother + Drunkard, criminal father = Nepali father’s Nepali child
Congress mother + German father = Nepali daughter
Congress ama + German father + Nepali daughter + Bangladeshi son-in-law = Nepali citizen
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