Native Daughters

The battle to secure matrilineal citizenship rights in Nepal

In practice, the only path to citizenship for children who cannot prove their fathers are Nepali citizens is naturalisation, which is granted very rarely, through a difficult process. navesh chitrakar / reuters
01 February, 2016

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.

As we walked to the ward office, Deepti said she had lost count of the number of times she had been to see government officials in the previous four years. That day, she approached her ward’s secretary for a letter of recommendation to present to the chief district officer for Lalitpur—the only local official authorised to issue citizenship papers. By late afternoon, Deepti and Neha had been shunted several times between the ward office and two separate sections of the Lalitpur sub-metropolitan city office nearby. As the workday wound down, the ward secretary maintained, as he had many times in the past, that he could not help Deepti and Neha. Regardless of what the constitution said, he told them, he had not received a circular from Nepal’s home ministry to start recommending citizenship in cases such as theirs. “It is not in my hands,” he told Deepti. “You need to be patient.” When I checked with Deepti in mid January, she told me the circular still hadn’t arrived.

A week after I joined Deepti on her round of offices, I met Bipin Adhikari, a constitutional lawyer, in his Kathmandu office. He told me that he views national citizenship as “a Nepal-versus-India issue,” in which “Nepal is thinking about its existence and long-term national interest.” These remarks play into an old trope of Nepali nationalism—fear of an Indian conspiracy to invade the country via the wombs of Nepali women. Children born of Nepali women and Indian men are often regarded as “Indians” who jeopardise the national fabric, and many people perceive the government’s strict approach as an attempt to forestall this threat. Adhikari also said that the constitution’s citizenship provision “cannot be considered discriminatory” because its effect “may be unequal, but that will only be felt by a small minority.”

Dipendra Jha, a Kathmandu-based activist and lawyer who has fought cases on behalf of people without citizenship documents, disagrees. Jha told me that the citizenship issue is “a national problem” that will impact large sections of the population. In 2015, the Forum for Women, Law and Development, a local advocacy and legal-aid organisation, reported that, in Nepal, 4.6 million people above the age of 16 lack citizenship documents—a number FWLD projects will rise to 6.7 million by 2021. The most recent national census, in 2011, reported the total Nepali population as 26.5 million.

In particular, Jha warned that “there may be more people denied citizenship in southern Nepal”—in the plains of the Madhes, whose inhabitants have deep connections with adjoining parts of India—“because of the open border and the prevalence of cross-border marriages.” Madhesis have often experienced discrimination by Nepal’s historical rulers, who have primarily been high-caste men from the Himalayan foothills. Many activists share Jha’s concerns that Madhesi women and their children will bear the brunt of the exclusion brought on by discriminatory citizenship practices.

For the last five months, Madhesis have been protesting the new constitution, primarily demanding proportional representation, population-based demarcation of electoral constituencies, and the redrawing of state boundaries. In early December, however, the issue of citizenship moved up on the list of the protestors’ priorities, when Madhesi leaders demanded an amendment to the citizenship clause of the constitution.

Federal legislation is also a point of concern for the Madhesi community. Nepal is currently in the process of dividing itself into separate federal states—each of which will create its own laws. Rajendra Mahato, a Madhesi leader, told an English-language daily, the Kathmandu Post, that he does not trust that federal laws, when formulated, will remedy the discriminatory citizenship practices.

Soon after the start of the new year, Laxman Lal Karna, a leader of the Madhes-centric Sadbhawana Party, told me that Madhesi parties want the ruling class to understand that the fight for equitable citizenship practices is central to their community’s plight. “At the heart of this fight for citizenship is the issue of identity,” Karna said. “Madhesis have never been considered Nepalis, the ruling class looks at our faces and calls us ‘Indian’ or ‘Bihari.’”

Sushama Gautam, an FWLD lawyer, who met me at her office in early October, told me that sexist biases underlie the citizenship provision in the new Nepali constitution. Although the “father or mother” provision ostensibly grants equal rights to both Nepali women and men, she said, “if you read the fine print, the provision is driven by patriarchy and is extremely discriminatory towards women.” The provision specifies that while a child of a Nepali man married to a foreign woman is granted automatic citizenship by descent, a child of a Nepali woman married to a foreigner is only eligible to apply for naturalised citizenship.

Naturalisation, Jha had told me, involves a gruelling process: first, a chief district officer forwards an application to the home ministry, which then forms a committee to deliberate over it. If that application is approved, it moves to a cabinet of ministers for a final decision. In practice, naturalised citizenship is granted exceedingly rarely.

Gautam conceded that amending citizenship laws in the near future looks difficult, particularly as the country grapples with other divisive issues of federation and minority representation. But, she told me, if federal legislation, when made, denies citizenship to children of single Nepali women, then “there are legal ways to amend the laws.” She pointed out that the constitution’s preamble enshrines equality for all Nepalis, regardless of gender, and that the country has signed several international treaties whose principles oppose barriers to citizenship by matrilineal descent. These, she said, can be used as bases for public-interest litigation against the government’s laws and practices.

Deepti isn’t giving up either. In 2011, she left her job as a marketing director for an aerial-sport company, and has since dedicated herself full-time to the fight against discriminatory citizenship provisions. She runs a Facebook page for the cause, networks with lawyers and activists, and occasionally organises protests. “I have to find strength in the fact that if we continue to fight, things will change,” she said.

Though there is much work left to be done, Deepti can already count one victory. In mid 2014, she went to court after the department of education barred Nikita from secondary-school examinations because, again due to the absence of her father, the state would not issue her a birth certificate. In early 2015, Nepal’s supreme court ordered that Deepti’s daughters be issued birth certificates, and that Nikita be allowed to sit for her exams.

But even then, on Neha’s birth certificate, in the field for her father’s name, the state wrote in “Mr Father Unknown” rather than leaving it blank. “It is as if my existence, or the existence of my children, is incomplete without the mention of the father,” Deepti said. “I am their mother and father, I worry about their health and future. Why are the state authorities after the father who has not even invested a day in his life for his children?”