International Women's Day: Unequal treatment puts women at risk of statelessness

News Stories, 8 March 2012

© UNHCR/G.Amarasinghe
An ethnic Tamil tea plucker and her son in Sri Lanka, which is among countries that have amended laws to grant women equal rights as men to pass on their nationality.

GENEVA, March 8 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency marked International Women's Day on Thursday with a warning that unequal treatment of women could create statelessness in more than two dozen countries.

A press statement released in Geneva said that a new UNHCR survey had found that unequal treatment of women in nationality laws affects people in most continents. It said 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 UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller. "When there is discrimination in conferring nationality, we see children becoming stateless from the moment they are born."

The UNHCR press release said most of the countries that deny mothers the right to confer nationality are found in the Middle East and North Africa (12 states) and sub-Saharan Africa (nine), with the remainder in Asia (four) and the Americas (two).

"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," the statement said.

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 survey, states are showing growing willingness to take action to remedy gender inequality in citizenship laws. Reform has been undertaken in recent years in Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Monaco, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Zimbabwe. All have amended their laws to grant women equal rights as men to pass on their nationality. 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."

Up to 12 million people around the world are estimated to be stateless, meaning they are not considered as nationals of any state. Up to half are children. Stateless people are some of the most marginalized and destitute in the world; they are often invisible populations that are difficult to count.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, meanwhile, noted efforts by the refugee agency over the past year to promote the advancement of women and gender equality.

"Dialogue is an important aspect of UNHCR's participatory approach to the protection of our persons of concern," he said in a message to staff marking International Women's Day. "This is especially critical when engaging with women and girls, who are disproportionately affected by sexual and gender-based violence and harmful stereotypes, all too often exacerbated by a lack of legal status," he added.

Guterres said these particular vulnerabilities were highlighted during a series of regional dialogues held last year in seven countries with forcibly displaced women and girls. "The protection recommendations we received from the over 1,000 participants in these dialogues have recently been published in book form," the High Commissioner announced. The publication is entitled "Survivors, Protectors, Providers: Refugee Women Speak Out."

He also noted that gender inequalities in nationality laws, aside from disempowering women, can also create statelessness. "This creates a cycle of marginalization, with tens of thousands of children unable to access education and health care or develop an identity as part of society."

Guterres said UNHCR was marking International Women's Day with the release of a media package aimed at promoting gender equality in nationality laws to prevent statelessness from arising.

Women's Day Book Launch: Displaced women and girls share their experiences and propose solutions.

Gender Equality, Nationality Laws and Statelessness




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


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

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

Refugee Women

Women and girls make up about 50 percent of the world's refugee population, and they are clearly the most vulnerable. At the same time, it is the women who carry out the crucial tasks in refugee camps – caring for their children, participating in self-development projects, and keeping their uprooted families together.

To honour them and to draw attention to their plight, the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to dedicate World Refugee Day on June 20, 2002, to women refugees.

The photographs in this gallery show some of the many roles uprooted women play around the world. They vividly portray a wide range of emotions, from the determination of Macedonian mothers taking their children home from Kosovo and the hope of Sierra Leonean girls in a Guinean camp, to the tears of joy from two reunited sisters. Most importantly, they bring to life the tremendous human dignity and courage of women refugees even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Refugee Women

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

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