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In Nepal, Women As Second-Class Citizen Takes A Sad New Twist

Though the law says otherwise, citizenship is typically not granted to the children of Nepalese women if they don't give proof that the father is also from Nepal.

Mother and daughter in Patan, Nepal
Mother and daughter in Patan, Nepal
Rajan Parajuli

KATHMANDU — Hanging in Arjun Shah's room in his Kathmandu boarding house is a white t-shirt that reads in bold red letters: "Where Is Our Citizenship?"

The shirt is one of about 500 that the 25-year-old had printed up to share with friends, fellow activists, and to wear at protests. Shah dresses has dressed more formally on nearly nine years' worth of visits to government offices, in an endless attempt to obtain his Nepalese citizenship.

"They want my father's citizenship card. But he doesn't have one because he moved to Nepal from India," he explains. "My mother has a citizenship certificate. But they will not accept it and shout at me to go away."

Life without citizenship is tough. People like Shah cannot legally get a driving license, open a bank account, take out a loan or buy land. It's also stopping the young man from getting a job. "I was ranked first in the recruitment process at a bank," he says. "In the interview, the man asked me to show my citizenship card. When I told him I don't have one, he literally threw my certificate at me and said, "You are not Nepalese, you must be Indian.""

The Interim Constitution made in 2007 clearly states that "any person whose father or mother was a citizen of Nepal at his or her birth is a Nepalese citizen." But in practice, women in this patriarchal society still face much discrimination when passing down citizenship to their children, especially in the absence of the father or if the father is not a citizen. Overall, there are an estimated 4.3 million Nepalese living without citizenship.

Preserving the patriarchy

Deepti Gurung is a single mother of two daughters. Her boyfriend left her when she was pregnant. "I was an 18-year-old girl and decided I was going to give birth to this child no matter what, with or without a father," she recalls. "It doesn't matter. I have struggled throughout my life to bring up my daughter with pride. I rejoiced, celebrated my daughter's birth."

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Nepalese girl in Kathmandu — Photo: Esmar Abdul Hamid

Now Deepti’s elder daughter Neha is 18 years old. She wants to study to become a doctor. But without citizenship that will be very difficult. "When I was filling a form at school I had to fill in the parents' names," says Neha. "I asked if it'd be okay just to put my mother's name. They said, "what kind of person are you? You even don’t know your father's name.""

Deepti wants to know why her daughter is being treated as a second-class citizen. "These people are saying, "If you have already given birth to a child why is it shameful to disclose who the father is?" I'm not ashamed. I am disgusted. I don't want to associate the gentleman who didn’t take the responsibility of me and my child.”

The Constituent Assembly, the body writing Nepal's new constitution, has been debating the issue. Former prime minister and Assembly member Madhav Kumar believes mothers should not have the same rights as fathers. "It's not possible because we cannot provide citizenship to every person who comes to Nepal," he says. "What happens after 50 years?”

The issue of identity is a sensitive and controversial one in Nepal. Many politicians fear an influx of people from India. But Sabin Shrestha, the executive director of the Forum for Woman, Law and Development, says it is really an issue of male control. "They think if they give equal rights to women in terms of citizenship, then the patriarchy system will be destroyed," she says.

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