No Country, No Rights: Gender Discrimination and Statelessness

An estimated 12 million people worldwide are stateless, with no country to call home. They are not recognized as nationals of the countries where they live, and as a result are denied basic human rights. For many people, this situation arises because of gender discrimination in nationality laws. This occurs when nationality legislation prevents women from acquiring, changing, retaining or passing on their nationality to their children and/or their spouses on an equal basis with men. This discrimination must end and nationality laws must be changed.

Today, the Women's Refugee Commission, and the Statelessness Program at the University of Tilburg (Netherlands) are launching a report, Our Motherland, Our Country: Gender Discrimination and Statelessness in the Middle East and North Africa.

The report is based on field research we conducted in Morocco and Egypt, which have enacted nationality legislation to address statelessness, and in Kuwait and Jordan, which still maintain gender discrimination in their nationality laws. Twenty-nine countries around the world, 11 of them in the Middle East and North Africa, still have discriminatory nationality laws that make it impossible for women to transfer their nationality to their children, or to their non-national spouses.

Being stateless has grave consequences, often leading to violations of fundamental human rights. Stateless people face many barriers and obstacles: without citizenship or identity documents they are unable to own or rent property, secure formal employment or access services such as public health care, education and social welfare benefits. Statelessness impacts individuals' ability to marry and couples' decisions to start a family. As one stateless woman in Kuwait who has no identity documents told our researcher, "I cannot get married. The court will refuse to allow me to sign a marriage certificate because I do not exist." It also impacts inheritance and property rights, leaving those affected unable to transfer their financial and material resources to their children. Not surprisingly, the research found that statelessness impacted mental health, with widespread depression reported among individuals and families affected.

The recent enactment of reforms to nationality legislation in Morocco and Egypt has enabled women to transfer their nationality to their children, thereby conferring rights previously denied. The reformed law of 2007 in Morocco states, "A child born of a Moroccan father, or a child born of a Moroccan mother, is a Moroccan child." The reform has led to a resolution of previous problems with regards to residency and access to public health care. The greatest impact of reforms in Egypt in 2004 has been the ability of families to remain in the country without fear of deportation and access to education and employment. The reforms in these two countries demonstrate the positive change in individuals' and families' lives when gender discrimination is removed from nationality legislation.

The Women's Refugee Commission recommends that governments take immediate steps to amend their nationality laws to allow women the same rights as men to pass on their nationality to their children and non-national spouses, with retroactive effect. We are also advocating for governments to provide access to basic rights for those affected by gender discrimination in nationality laws, in particular, access to education, health care, employment, identity and travel documents.

Many of the governments with these discriminatory laws have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in addition to being bound by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It's time they live up to these obligations and reform their nationality laws to grant women equal treatment and stop the cycle of rendering generation after generation of children stateless because of whom you marry.