Di­min­ish­ing Rights

The women of Nepal face a real set­back.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sam­ina Wahid The writer is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who con­trib­utes regularly to var­i­ous lead­ing publi­ca­tions.

Anew doc­u­ment in Nepal could ren­der close to a mil­lion peo­ple state­less if ap­proved. Nepal’s new draft con­sti­tu­tion has caused out­rage among women who say their cit­i­zen­ship, prop­erty and other rights would be cur­tailed by the doc­u­ment that has been de­signed to draw a line un­der cen­turies of in­equal­ity. Un­der cur­rent rules, chil­dren are el­i­gi­ble for Nepalese cit­i­zen­ship as long as one par­ent is Nepalese but the pro­posed con­sti­tu­tion pre­vents sin­gle par­ents from pass­ing on the cit­i­zen­ship to their chil­dren – it re­quires both par­ents to be Nepalese for the chil­dren to in­herit cit­i­zen­ship.

Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal hu­man rights ac­tivists, the move could leave a mil­lion peo­ple state­less and will mostly af­fect women since they ac­count for a vast ma­jor­ity of sin­gle par­ents in Nepal. What’s worse is the fact that it makes eas­ier for a Nepalese man to con­fer cit­i­zen­ship on his for­eign spouse while Nepalese women need to be mar­ried for at least 15 years to their for­eign hus­bands be­fore they are el­i­gi­ble to ap­ply for cit­i­zen­ship.

What is more, in­stead of spec­i­fy­ing that daugh­ters can in­herit an­ces­tral

prop­erty, the draft re­places the words “all chil­dren” with “sons and daugh­ters.” Ac­tivists say this could be in­ter­preted as sons and un­mar­ried daugh­ters only. This is the word­ing used in the coun­try’s civil code.

"The draft dis­misses the iden­tity of a woman and re­flects our coun­try's pa­tri­ar­chal mind­set that seeks to main­tain dis­crim­i­na­tory prac­tices," says Sapana Prad­han Malla, who heads the pres­sure group, Fo­rum for Women, Law and De­vel­op­ment.

Mean­while, cam­paign­ers are also con­cerned that the pro­posed con­sti­tu­tion will be mis­used to re­strict a woman’s right to abor­tion which was le­gal­ized in 2002. It fore­sees a ban on sex-se­lec­tive abor­tions, which ac­tivists say could be used to deny women abor­tions by falsely ac­cus­ing them of try­ing to abort girls in a coun­try where boys are pre­ferred.

"This is­sue should not be dealt with in the con­sti­tu­tion," said Son­ali Regmi, Asia re­gional man­ager for the Cen­ter for Re­pro­duc­tive Rights. "We fear that the clause can be mis­used to limit a woman's right to safe abor­tion, a key rea­son for the de­crease in Nepal's ma­ter­nal mor­tal­ity rates."

Forty year-old shop owner Rama Bista says the char­ter poses a ma­jor step back for women in a coun­try that has long fa­vored men. Bista, who is mar­ried to an In­dian man based in Nepal, has spent the last four years try­ing to se­cure cit­i­zen­ship for her two sons -- their le­gal right un­der the cur­rent con­sti­tu­tion.

"I can­not even speak of some of the things I've been told. They tell me my chil­dren are not Nepali, that I should go to my hus­band's coun­try," Bista told jour­nal­ists re­cently.

But Bista's al­ready tough strug­gle is set to be­come im­pos­si­ble un­der the new char­ter which bars sin­gle par­ents from pass­ing on their cit­i­zen­ship to their chil­dren and ad­di­tion­ally says both par­ents must be Nepalese. Bista says she is anx­ious about the fu­ture for her sons since cit­i­zen­ship is needed to get any­thing in Nepal from a driv­ing li­cense to a bank ac­count.

Par­lia­ment is ex­pected to even­tu­ally vote on the long-awaited con­sti­tu­tion which had promised to end years of po­lit­i­cal limbo in the im­pov­er­ished na­tion. Law­mak­ers were tasked with draft­ing the char­ter af­ter a decade­long in­sur­gency ig­nited by deep­rooted so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic in­equal­i­ties. A com­mit­tee is now set to draw up rec­om­men­da­tions for changes to the draft, fol­low­ing a se­ries of public con­sul­ta­tions around the coun­try.

In re­cent weeks, vi­o­lence has marred the con­sul­ta­tions, es­pe­cially in the south­ern plains, home to the his­tor­i­cally marginal­ized Mad­hesi com­mu­nity, many of whose mem­bers marry into fam­i­lies liv­ing across the bor­der in In­dia. Law­mak­ers have brushed off the protests and cam­paign­ers' con­cerns, say­ing the draft is not in­tended to dis­crim­i­nate against any­one. "The con­sti­tu­tion is not anti-women," said rul­ing coali­tion law­maker Bhim Rawal, who helped draft the doc­u­ment. “Ev­ery coun­try has pro­vi­sions to pro­tect its na­tion­al­ity and sovereignty,” he added.

For other ex­perts, such a pro­vi­sion rep­re­sents a huge set­back in the ef­forts to make women eco­nom­i­cally in­de­pen­dent of their hus­bands. It also con­tra­dicts the gov­ern­ment's at­tempt to pro­vide women ac­cess to prop­erty by pro­vid­ing 30 per cent ex­emp­tion on tax whilst trans­fer­ring land own­er­ship to women in ru­ral ar­eas.

For Deep­en­dra Jha, a lawyer, the draft will make things worse for girls, most of whom al­ready live in poverty. The other im­por­tant area in which the pro­posal dis­crim­i­nates is in cit­i­zen­ship rights. Ar­ti­cle 12 (1), also known as the “and” pro­vi­sion, grants Nepali cit­i­zen­ship to chil­dren born to Nepali par­ents. If this is adopted, chil­dren born to a for­eign fa­ther or mother could be state­less. Ac­tivists want cit­i­zen­ship to be granted to chil­dren if ei­ther the fa­ther or the mother is Nepali. “Such a pro­vi­sion would cre­ate dif­fi­cul­ties not only in the case where a child had a for­eign par­ent, but also in case of a break­down of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween par­ents. The child could be state­less if an ap­pli­ca­tion for cit­i­zen­ship was not made or if the fa­ther re­fused to rec­og­nize him or her,” said Jha.

Dis­crim­i­na­tion un­der Ar­ti­cle 12.1 is even worse when one con­sid­ers that Ar­ti­cle 282 of the draft pro­posal pro­vides that only Nepali cit­i­zens (as de­fined by de­scent) can have ac­cess to the high­est of­fices of the state, in­clud­ing that of pres­i­dent, vice pres­i­dent, prime min­is­ter, chief jus­tice, speaker of the par­lia­ment, chief min­is­ters and heads of se­cu­rity agen­cies.

If the con­sti­tu­tion is passed, vi­o­lent protests that have hit the im­pov­er­ished Hi­malayan na­tion are likely to get worse since the char­ter fails to ad­dress a string of con­cerns in­clud­ing the rights of women.

If the con­sti­tu­tion is passed, vi­o­lent protests that have hit the im­pov­er­ished Hi­malayan na­tion are likely to get worse.

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