The Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD), Nepal, and Equality Now express disappointment over the refusal by Nepal’s President, Bidya Devi Bhandari, to sign the Citizenship Amendment Bill (which amends the Nepal Citizenship Act, 2063 BS (2006)) into law. The President has not authenticated the bill despite being constitutionally bound to do so after it was passed by both houses of the country’s Parliament. This has caused a constitutional crisis in Nepal, and has left thousands of people stuck in a painful limbo, including Nepali mothers wanting to confer their citizenship to their children.
Had President Bhandari signed the bill, the law would have been amended to introduce some crucial changes to the rules governing access to Nepali citizenship.
The bill would have granted Nepali mothers the right to confer citizenship to their children who are living in Nepal, once a self-declaration could be made by her of the father being ‘unidentified’ or absent. Another amendment would have accorded ‘citizenship by descent’ to those born to parents with citizenship by birth. It also would have given Non-Resident Nepalis (NRNs) access to a type of citizenship that assured economic, social, and cultural rights, but no voting and other political rights.
We strongly believe that the law should address equality in all terms and conditions when it pertains to the passing of citizenship, irrespective of the gender of the persons involved. This larger aim could have been partly achieved if the amended bill had become law, as a first step. While it would have addressed some urgent gender-discriminatory citizenship provisions and practices in Nepal, the passing of the bill would also have opened up the space for more pointed advocacy for further amendments that address remaining discrimination.
The Roots of Discrimination
The roots of discrimination and gender inequality in terms of citizenship are also prevalent in the Constitution of Nepal, and it still needs amending. However, we believe that this bill can be a true life-changer for the persons who are the children of parents with citizenship by birth.
To date, 190,726 people have acquired citizenship by birth. The Constitution of Nepal promulgated in 2015, provided that, “A child of a citizen having obtained the citizenship of Nepal by birth prior to the commencement of Nepal shall, upon attaining majority, acquire the citizenship of Nepal by descent if the child’s father and mother both are citizens of Nepal.” This provision envisioned the mandatory need for the father ‘and’ the mother to be citizens of Nepal in order to acquire citizenship of descent.
The State We’re In: Ending Sexism In Nationality Laws – 2022 Edition – Update For A Disrupted World by Equality Now has revealed that Nepal is one of 8 Asian countries – Bangladesh, Malaysia, Brunei, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand – with sex-discriminatory provisions in their citizenship laws which deny women or grant them unequal rights to pass on their citizenship to their children and/or spouses.
Discriminatory nationality laws have an enormous impact on women and their families, often violating their rights to health, education, employment, and non-discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and religion. The inability – largely of women – to pass on their nationality to their spouse or to their children can have grave consequences for both them and their families, including statelessness, lack of access to social benefits, increased vulnerability of women in abusive marriages, and mental health concerns like anxiety.
The Journey of Nepal’s Citizenship Amendment Bill
Nepal’s Citizenship Amendment Bill (which amends the Nepal Citizenship Act, 2063 BS (2006)) has been fighting to become law since 2018. Registered on August 8, 2018, and presented in Parliament on August 10, 2018, the bill was submitted to the Parliament by the State Management and Good Governance Committee (with dissenting opinion) after a clause-by-clause discussion on June 23, 2020.
After years of delay because of a lack of political consensus, the bill was endorsed by the House of Representatives (HoR) on 22 July 2022, and by the National Assembly on 28 July 2022.
On August 14, 2022, President Bidya Devi Bhandari sent back the Citizenship Amendment Bill to the country’s HoR for reconsideration. On August 18, 2022, the HoR endorsed the bill in its current form and sent it back to the President for authentication without any changes included.
The provision to ratify it within 15 days of it being returned to the President expired on September 20, 2022.
While returning the bill for reconsideration, the President had attached 15 concerns and suggestions. Among them was the question of the dignity of single mothers who are required to give details of the father of their children through the provision of self-declaration. The President had opined that this provision went against Article 16 of the Constitution which talks of a citizen’s right to live with dignity; Article 38, which guarantees women safe motherhood and reproductive rights; and Article 39, which ensures the fundamental rights of children.
The Human Rights Ramifications
In spite of the presence of clauses that do not fully address gender-discriminatory citizenship provisions, the Citizenship Amendment Bill of Nepal represents the culmination of years of advocacy by women’s rights activists, affected citizens, and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in Nepal for a progressive and gender-equal nationality law. The possibility of the bill now stagnating without authentication will be a blow to this determined activism.
The delay in the bill coming into effect has become an urgent human rights concern in the country as it blocks thousands of children of parents who got citizenship by birth from acquiring citizenship by descent. The delay also prevents Nepali mothers from passing on their citizenship to their children born outside the country, exposing them to severe anxiety and uncertainty.
A Constitutional Crisis
The missing of the deadline for Presidential authentication and the ending of the current tenure of the Nepal HoR means that the amendment bill has effectively lapsed.
Indeed, the law would have needed further amendments for it to become more comprehensively gender equal, especially with respect to the rights of Nepali mothers to pass on their citizenship to their children irrespective of the status of the father’s existence and without the spectre of a penalty brought on by a false or incorrect self-declaration. But the lapsing of the bill means that the crucial first steps towards that future have been stalled.
The non-adoption of positive provisions in this amendment bill is a lost opportunity on the path to changing fundamental constitutional discriminatory provisions as well.
Explore the The State We’re In: Ending Sexism In Nationality Laws – 2022 Edition – Update For A Disrupted World.