Unequal treatment of women risks creating statelessness in at least 25 countries

Press Releases, 8 March 2012

GENEVA A UNHCR survey has found that unequal treatment of women in nationality laws affects most continents of the world. At least 25 countries maintain nationality laws that do not allow women to confer nationality on their children.

"A child born stateless today faces a future of uncertainty and insecurity," said Erika Feller, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection. "When there is discrimination in conferring nationality, we see children becoming stateless from the moment they are born."

Most of the states that deny mothers the right to confer nationality are found in the Middle East and North Africa (twelve states) and Sub-Saharan Africa (nine states), with the remainder in Asia (four states) and the Americas (two states).

Children become stateless in these countries because in some instances they can neither acquire the nationality of their mother nor of their father. This can happen, for example, if the father is himself stateless, or if laws fail to grant nationality to children born outside the country of their father. In addition, some children fall into a bureaucratic quagmire when a father dies or abandons them, leaving them without documentation to confirm their nationality.

According to the study, states are showing growing willingness to take action to remedy gender inequality in citizenship laws. Reform has been undertaken in recent years in Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Indonesia, Morocco, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tunisia, and Monaco. All have amended their laws to grant women equal rights as men to pass their nationality to their children. UNHCR is working with a number of other countries to make further reforms.

"Gender discrimination was once pervasive around the world," said Feller. "We have now seen a broad trend to reform nationality laws to address this cause of statelessness and applaud the States which have done so."

Up to 12 million people around the world are estimated to be stateless, meaning they are not considered as nationals of any state. Of this group, as many as half are children. Stateless people are some of the most marginalised and destitute in the world; they are often invisible populations that are difficult to count. More research is needed to identify how many children are stateless as a result of gender discriminatory laws.

In December 2011 UNHCR convened a ministerial meeting to commemorate the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. During this meeting several countries pledged to eradicate discrimination in nationality legislation.

Background Note on Gender Equality, Nationality Laws and Statelessness
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UN Conventions on Statelessness

The two UN statelessness conventions are the key legal instruments in the protection of stateless people around the world.

State Action on Statelessness

Action taken by states, including follow-up on pledges made at UNHCR's 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva.

How UNHCR Helps Women

By ensuring participation in decision-making and strengthening their self-reliance.

UNHCR's Dialogues with Refugee Women

Progress report on implementation of recommendations.

Women

Women and girls can be especially vulnerable to abuse in mass displacement situations.

Advocacy

Advocacy is a key element in UNHCR activities to protect people of concern.

Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Statelessness and Women

Statelessness can arise when citizenship laws do not treat men and women equally. Statelessness bars people from rights that most people take for granted such as getting a job, buying a house, travelling, opening a bank account, getting an education, accessing health care. It can even lead to detention.

In some countries, nationality laws do not allow mothers to confer nationality to their children on an equal basis as fathers and this creates the risk that these children will be left stateless. In others, women cannot acquire, change or retain their nationality on an equal basis as men. More than 40 countries still discriminate against women with respect to these elements.

Fortunately, there is a growing trend for states to remedy gender discrimination in their nationality laws, as a result of developments in international human rights law and helped by vigorous advocacy from women's rights groups. The women and children depicted here have faced problems over nationality.

Statelessness and Women

Women in Exile

In any displaced population, approximately 50 percent of the uprooted people are women and girls. Stripped of the protection of their homes, their government and sometimes their family structure, females are particularly vulnerable. They face the rigours of long journeys into exile, official harassment or indifference and frequent sexual abuse, even after reaching an apparent place of safety. Women must cope with these threats while being nurse, teacher, breadwinner and physical protector of their families. In the last few years, UNHCR has developed a series of special programmes to ensure women have equal access to protection, basic goods and services as they attempt to rebuild their lives.

On International Women's Day UNHCR highlights, through images from around the world, the difficulties faced by displaced women, along with their strength and resilience.

Women in Exile

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The Fight for Survival – Syrian Women Alone

Lina has not heard from her husband since he was detained in Syria two years ago. Now a refugee in Lebanon, she lives in a tented settlement with her seven children.