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The State We’re In: Sex discriminatory nationality laws in Sub-Saharan Africa 

Despite Africa as a region being home to one of the most progressive women’s human rights instruments in the world, there are 16 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa where women are denied the right to confer their nationalities to their children and/or spouses on an equal basis with men, which leaves them and their families at grave risk of violations of human rights. 

Effects far beyond nationality itself

In addition to the well-documented negative impact on women and their families that sex-discriminatory nationality laws can have, including denying access to employment, or even causing statelessness, nationality laws sometimes reinforce sex-discriminatory provisions in other laws and uphold harmful practices. For example, in the nationality laws of Mauritius and Nigeria, the provisions related to registration of citizenship/renunciation of nationality consider a married girl of 16 to be “full age” even though “full age” is defined as 18 elsewhere in the nationality law. And a number of countries, including, for example, the Central African Republic and Cameroon, implicitly endorse child marriage by explicitly allowing a minor girl to retain her nationality at the time of marriage.

Stalemate…and progress

Regionally, there has been both progress and stalemate. In September 2015, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights adopted a new Protocol on the Right to a Nationality, but this still has yet to be finalized, endorsed and adopted by the African Union and opened to member states for signature and ratification. 

Subregionally, in 2016 the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum adopted a Resolution on the Prevention of Statelessness and the Protection of Stateless Persons in the SADC Region, and in 2017, the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) adopted a Declaration on the Eradication of Statelessness, both of which call on member states to uphold equality nationality laws.

Nationally, in recent years – and even in just the two weeks since the publication of our updated report – we have seen good progress toward achieving  gender equality in nationality laws in 20 countries around the world, with several of these in Sub-Saharan Africa, although there is still work to be done:

  • According to reports, at the end of July 2022, Liberia passed into law an Act to amend and or nullify certain provisions of the Alien and Nationality Law, ensuring women and men’s equal right to confer nationality on their children.
  • In 2019, Guinea passed a new Family Code, which removed discriminatory provisions on nationality laws and now allows Guinean men and women to pass on nationality to their spouses equally. 
  • The Malawi Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, permitted Malawi citizens to hold dual citizenship and repealed an earlier discriminatory provision in the law whereby a Malawian woman was stripped of her nationality if she took her husband’s foreign nationality.
  • In December 2018, Lesotho enacted constitutional reforms which now uphold citizens’ equal ability to confer nationality on spouses.
  • Madagascar: With the 25 January 2017 amendment to Madagascar’s 1960 Nationality Code, women now have the right to transfer their nationality to their biological children on an equal basis with men. 
  • On 5 July 2017, the Parliament of Sierra Leone announced that the Citizenship Amendment Act 2017 passed into law, giving mothers equal rights with fathers to transmit their nationality to their children.
  • On 8 December 2014, Law No. 2014-60 of 5 November 2014 modifying the Nationality Code of Niger came into effect so that married women can now pass their nationality to their foreign spouse on an equal basis with men.
  • Senegal: On 25 June 2013, Parliament amended the law to grant Senegalese women the same rights as men to transfer their nationality to their husbands and children.

Equality under the law, safety, and security for all

We are hopeful that, by 2030, the state we’re in will be one of equality under the law, safety, and security for all in the region. To achieve this, the governments of Sub-Saharan Africa should eliminate all forms of gender discrimination in nationality laws, including by revising them so that:

  • all women and men can equally confer citizenship on their children and spouses, 
  • foreign women and men do not automatically lose their new nationality on termination of the marriage, 
  • change in the father’s nationality does not automatically mean loss of nationality for his spouse and children.

* Update – 10 February 2023:

Benin reformed its nationality law at the end of December 2022 so there is now complete equality.

Explore our full recommendations for governments in The State We’re In: Ending Sexism In Nationality Laws – 2022 Edition – Update For A Disrupted World