Gender Discriminatory Nationality Laws: Impact on Women’s Livelihood and World of Work

This is a guest post contributed by Catherine Harrington, the Campaign Manager of the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, Women’s Refugee Commission.


The links between discrimination against women in social, political, and economic life and gender-based violence are well-documented. These links are made tragically clear in the context of nationality laws that deny women the same rights as men.

Globally, twenty-five countries maintain nationality laws that deny women equal rights with men to pass their citizenship to their children. Approximately fifty countries have gender-discriminatory provisions in their nationality laws, with almost all of them denying women the right to confer nationality on a non-national spouse, and some stripping women of citizenship acquired through marriage if that marriage dissolves.

These kinds of discrimination result in wide-ranging human rights violations and can render affected persons stateless. In fact, gender discrimination in nationality laws is a primary cause of statelessness amongst children, as children who are denied their mother’s nationality may be unable to acquire their father’s nationality owing to a variety of reasons. These laws also result in family separation, due to travel documents and residency permits being denied to the children and spouses of women citizens. Those without citizenship due to discrimination in the nationality law are often denied access to range of social services, including national healthcare systems – an issue of grave concern as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gender-discriminatory nationality laws also contribute to multiple forms of gender-based violence. For example, women who are residing abroad with a foreign spouse face even greater obstacles to escape from abusive relationships when their children’s citizenship is tied to the abusive spouse’s status. Girls without nationality in their country of residence are also at an increased risk of child marriage, as some families seek legal status for girls through marriage. At their core, gender-discriminatory nationality laws are drivers of gender-based violence because they perpetuate women’s unequal status in the society.

The violence resulting from these laws also applies to the world of work. Those without nationality because of these discriminatory laws often work in the informal sector and they do not have access to the legal protections established for those in the formal employment sector. Such women workers not only face lower wages and job insecurity, but also a compromised ability to report assault and harassment by employers. Without access to formal employment, affected persons are also at an increased risk of human trafficking. For instance, Sapana, a Nepali woman abandoned by her husband, could not access formal employment for herself and education for her children due to discriminatory nationality laws in Nepal.

Most countries with gender-discriminatory nationality laws deny women the same right as men to confer nationality on their non-national spouses. This often means that women’s foreign spouses are denied access to employment. In some instances, this can result in increased tension within the home, due to financial strain and the husband’s inability to fulfill traditional gender roles and expectations to provide for the family. These factors can increase the risk of domestic violence.

Other gender-discriminatory nationality laws deny women the same right as men to pass citizenship to children born abroad, which constrains women’s professional opportunities and livelihoods – a form of economic violence. As this Malaysian mother put it, “Women will give birth overseas for a variety of reasons, for myself, it’s employment – and what am I supposed to do, am I supposed to quit my job or tell my company, ‘No, I don’t want this golden opportunity -find someone else’?” Beyond their impact on women’s livelihoods, these laws can also result in threats to women’s physical security. Mothers have been forced to decide whether to board a flight late in their pregnancy to deliver their child in their home country and possibly compromise their or their baby’s health, or give birth abroad and risk being unable to secure nationality for their child. At the same time, countless women are only made aware of this discrimination when they are blocked from securing national identity cards for their children born abroad. In late 2019, a Malaysian mother who worked abroad was prevented from traveling home with her newborn to tend to her sick father, because she could not secure the needed travel document for her baby born outside Malaysia. The Malaysian Campaign for Equal Citizenship’s efforts to publicize the terrible situation faced by the mother and the subsequent national outcry caused the government to act, but women should not have to solely rely on social media campaigns to secure documentation for their children – documentation that is automatically given to the children of male citizens.

The truth is gender discrimination in nationality laws demonstrates the State’s position that the rights and responsibilities of citizenship are based not on one’s status as a citizen, but according to one’s gender. Such a framework is in direct contradiction with efforts to combat gender-based violence.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, many governments that claim to be committed to combating violence against women fall silent when it comes to reforming the laws that perpetuate its root cause. This silence harms women in the world of work and in the home and undermines women’s equal citizenship. To truly address the root causes of violence against women, women must be upheld as full and equal citizens in nationality laws and all laws.

While obstacles persist, civil society and political leaders are succeeding in efforts to reform gender-discriminatory nationality laws in multiple regions, and the number of countries with this discrimination continues to diminish. From Togo, to Eswatini, Lebanon, to Malaysia, to Kiribati, momentum to remove discriminatory provisions gives us hope that 2020 will see concrete reforms. As we mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action this year, the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights and our coalition members around the world will continue to fight to end gender discrimination in nationality laws and to advance a more secure and just world for women and their families. We hope you will join us.