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The State We’re In: Campaigning for Equality in Nationality Law

If everyone is able to pass on their nationality and all its benefits to their children and spouse, families, communities, and economies will be stronger. That’s the future we’re fighting for.

What is the problem with nationality law?

A quarter of the world’s governments deny women equal nationality rights, preventing women from passing on, acquiring, changing, or keeping their nationality on an equal basis with men. Our report, The State We’re In: Ending Sexism in Nationality Laws, the latest edition released in 2022, calls on the 49 nations that deny women equal rights to pass citizenship to their children and spouses to change their discriminatory laws. We also issued a short progress update in 2023.

What is the impact of discrimination in nationality law? 

Born and raised in Lebanon to a Lebanese mother, Nour was married off at age 15 to her father’s relative in Egypt. Since she is not entitled to her mother’s Lebanese citizenship, her parents worried she would not be able to remain in Lebanon as an adult, or have access to the education or work that she would be entitled to if her mother’s nationality were recognized.

Shireen is not allowed to register her Jordanian-born children on her Jordanian passport because their father is from another country. She has a troubled marriage and is terrified that her husband will take the children back to his country, leaving her with few and arduous options to get them back. She, too, thinks of marrying off her daughter early in order to give her the sense of security that Shireen herself lacks.

Haitian-born Maxime lives in the Bahamas and is married to a Bahamian woman. Together, they had two Bahamian-born children. After losing his work sponsorship, Maxime couldn’t work legally and was threatened with deportation. He and his wife have faced incredible obstacles trying to keep their family together, all because Maxime’s wife can’t pass her nationality to her spouse.

Had Nour’s father been Lebanese, and Shireen’s husband Jordanian, their children would have had an automatic right to citizenship. Had Maxime been able to acquire his wife’s nationality when they married, his economic future—and that of his family— would have been more secure. All three would not face the serious consequences– such as deportation or child marriage– that can result from discriminatory nationality laws.

Explore more stories of women, girls, and their families, affected by discriminatory nationality laws. 

Why is it a feminist issue? 

Too many discriminatory nationality laws remain founded on stereotypes, which in turn reinforce stereotypical roles for both women and men:

 A woman, once married, loses her independent identity – this leads to the anomalous situation in some countries where a woman is permitted to pass her nationality to her children if she is single, but not if she is married.

 A child “belongs” to a father rather than a mother – his nationality, therefore, is more likely to attach to the children, even if they live in the mother’s (different) home country. Children who are allowed to claim their mother’s nationality, but who live outside her country of citizenship, are frequently only permitted a small window on maturity in which to claim maternal citizenship, which limits the family’s options.

What does international law say?

The fundamental right to sex equality has been affirmed and reaffirmed repeatedly by governments in international treaties, declarations, and conferences, as well as in domestic constitutions. At the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, 189 governments pledged in the Beijing Platform for Action to “revoke any remaining laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.” In 2000, the UN General Assembly established a target date of 2005 for revocation of all sex-discriminatory laws.

The right to nationality has also been established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the Convention on the Rights of Child, and reinforced by the Beijing Platform for Action. The Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination calls for the right to nationality “without distinction as to race, color, or national or ethnic origin,” and Article 9 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women prohibits discrimination in the conferral of citizenship on children and foreign spouses as well as discrimination in the acquiring, changing and retaining of nationality. 

Despite this, numerous laws that explicitly discriminate against women, including in the area of nationality, are still in force. Governments should prioritize the elimination of all discrimination on the basis of sex to comply with their international legal obligations as well as their own national obligations to ensure equality.

What are we doing about it?

Equality Now is a co-founder and steering committee member for the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, a coalition advocating for international action to reform laws in countries where women are prevented from passing their nationality to their children or spouses on an equal basis with men. With our partners in the campaign, we raise awareness about nationality rights, publicize research, and advocate for legal reform.

There has been significant progress, both in terms of the amendment of discriminatory laws at the national level and the growing global movement to end discriminatory nationality laws.

What you can do about it

Your voice can help Nour in Lebanon, Shireen in Jordan, Maxime in the Bahamas, and families in the 49 countries where we’re advocating for equal nationality laws.  Laws themselves can be complex, but the solution is simple: immediate legal reform.