Con­cerns over Nepal’s con­sti­tu­tion grow


Nepal’s pro­posed new con­sti­tu­tion has sparked fury from women who say their cit­i­zen­ship, prop­erty and other rights are be­ing cur­tailed by the doc­u­ment de­signed to draw a line un­der cen­turies of in­equal­ity.

Law­mak­ers tabled a draft in par­lia­ment in June shortly af­ter bick­er­ing po­lit­i­cal par­ties struck an his­toric deal on the long-awaited char­ter, spurred to ne­go­ti­a­tion by an earth­quake in March that killed more than 8,800 peo­ple.

But a se­ries of some­times vi­o­lent protests have since hit the im­pov­er­ished, Hi­malayan na­tion, with ac­tivists say­ing the char­ter has failed to ad­dress a string of con­cerns.

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 AFP.

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.

It will over­turn a 2006 act that says chil­dren are el­i­gi­ble for cit­i­zen­ship as long as one par­ent is Nepalese.

Ac­tivists say the move could leave a mil­lion peo­ple state­less and will dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect women, who ac­count for the vast ma­jor­ity of sin­gle par­ents in Nepal.

Bista says she is anx­ious about the fu­ture for her sons since cit­i­zen­ship is needed to get any­thing in Nepal from a driver’s li­cense to a bank ac­count.

The draft also makes it eas­ier for a Nepalese man to con­fer cit­i­zen­ship on his for­eign spouse, while a Nepalese woman needs to be mar­ried 15 years to her for­eign hus­band be­fore even be­ing al­lowed to ap­ply.

Cam­paign­ers fear pro­vi­sions could also be used to pre­vent Nepalese wives or wid­ows from in­her­it­ing prop­erty un­less stip­u­lated in the de­ceased’s will.

In­stead of spec­i­fy­ing that daugh­ters can in­herit an­ces­tral prop­erty, the draft vaguely says “all chil­dren.” Ac­tivists are con­cerned this could be in­ter­preted as sons and un­mar­ried daugh­ters only — the word­ing used in the coun­try’s civil code.

The draft re­moves the ex­plicit ref­er­ence in the cur­rent con­sti­tu­tion to “sons and daugh­ters.”

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

Right to Abor­tion Fears

Cam­paign­ers are also con­cerned the draft will be mis­used to re­strict a woman’s right to abor­tion which was le­gal­ized in 2002 in the so­cially con­ser­va­tive coun­try.

The char­ter bans sex-se­lec­tive abor­tions, but ac­tivists say the pro­vi­sion is un­nec­es­sary since the prac­tice is al­ready illegal. They fear the char­ter will be used as a pow­er­ful tool 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.”

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 an­ti­women,” said rul­ing coali­tion law­maker Bhim Rawal, who helped draft the doc­u­ment.

“Ev­ery coun­try has pro­vi­sions to pro­tect its na­tion­al­ity and sovereignty,” Rawal told AFP.

But Bista and oth­ers re­main fear­ful the char­ter will close the door on rights they had fought years to get.

“We call our coun­try our mother­land, and yet a mother’s iden­tity has no value,” she said.

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