On a morning in early October last year, 42-year-old Deepti Gurung headed to the administrative office of her ward in Lalitpur, a municipality in the southern part of the Kathmandu valley. Her 20-year-old daughter, Neha, accompanied her, while her second child, 15-year-old Nikita, was at school. Deepti, a petite woman with long hair pulled into a tight plait, raised the two girls by herself. Their father abandoned them when Nikita was born. Because of their father’s absence, Nepal refuses to recognise Neha or Nikita as citizens—even though Deepti is a Nepali national, and both children were born on Nepali soil.
Deepti has been fighting to get citizenship for Neha since she turned 16—the age when Nepali children customarily get their citizenship certificates. This document is crucial in Nepal, since without it people cannot vote, open a bank account, sit for many official examinations, register the birth of a child, buy or sell property, get a passport, or even obtain a mobile SIM card. “For the state of Nepal,” Deepti told me, “Neha doesn’t exist.” This became especially clear a year and a half ago, when Deepti learnt that, without citizenship papers, Neha could not sit for a medical school entrance examination. “Neha worked hard in her science and math classes, had perfect scores in her high school exams and had always talked about becoming a doctor,” Deepti said. “She was deeply hurt that she had to abandon her dreams.”
For most of its history, Nepal only granted automatic citizenship to those with Nepali fathers. In 2006, at the end of a decade-long civil war, an interim constitution guaranteed citizenship to children born to either a Nepali father or a Nepali mother. A new constitution, promulgated in September last year, retained this provision. In practice, however, under both the interim and new constitutions, citizenship has remained almost exclusively accessible to people who can prove their fathers’ Nepali citizenship. So far, and as Deepti’s struggle shows, there is little indication that the country will move away from this practice—a symptom, many lawyers and activists argue, of deep-seated patriarchy and xenophobia.