The women of Nepal face a real setback.
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.