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A house of cards

The children of Nepali women married to non-Nepali men will not receive naturalised citizenship unless the husband becomes a Nepali citizen. No such provision exists for children of Nepali men married to non-Nepalis.

Having had spent two years in the hot Arabian desert, Parbati Pariyar was looking forward to returning home. She had managed to save a handsome sum working as a maid in Saudi Arabia and had plans to send her children to good schools and start a small business of her own. For a woman who has never had any formal education, saving Rs 900,000 in two years was in itself a small victory.

Her joy, however, would be short-lived. Shortly after landing at the Tribhuvan International Airport, Pariyar was detained on charges of traveling on a fake passport.

“What other option did I have?” laments the 38-year-old, “You can’t find well-paying jobs here, so my only option was to migrate to the Gulf for work. And when you don’t have a citizenship, there is little else you can do but travel on someone else’s passport.” Pariyar maintains that she did not steal the passport.

After being detained for two weeks, Pariyar, who hails from Chitwan, was finally able to post the Rs 10,000 set as bail. Her woes, however, did not end there. The small fortune that had allowed her to dream, even if just momentarily, was gone as well.

Before leaving Saudi Arabia for Nepal, Pariyar had wired the money to an account held by her brother’s son-in-law, the closest relative in her family to hold a citizenship—and thus a bank account. Now, he is refusing to return the money, leaving Pariyar to fight two legal battles simultaneously—one in defence of her fake passport, the other to get her hard-earned money back.

“I did not steal the money or murder someone. I only wanted to earn money for my children. If I don’t look after them, who will?” questions the single mother of three children—all aged between 13 and 18. Pariyar’s husband left the family after taking another wife and has since washed himself clean of any responsibility, including helping them fight the state bureaucracy for citizenships. Pariyar cannot trace who in her family married a non-Nepali, but her family has not held any official state documents for three entire generations—even if they were all born, raised and cremated in the country.

Pariyar is one of thousands in the country who continue to struggle to acquire citizenships. Nepal’s citizenship law does, on paper, provide a Nepali mother the same ‘privilege’ as a Nepali father when it comes to passing on citizenship to their children. But the hard ground realities say otherwise. Most Nepalis who have single mothers or fathers of foreign descent end up spending years scrambling pillar to post in order to get their paper works, often to no avail.  And without citizenships they are unable to pursue higher education, get jobs, buy property or even open a bank account.

Article 11.2 of the newly-promulgated constitution states that a person whose father ‘or’ mother is a Nepali at the time of his or her birth can become a Nepali citizen by descent. However, subsequent clauses 3 and 4 override the previous article, by saying both parents have to be Nepali for their children to acquire citizenship by descent, legal experts claim. Further, contrary to the constitutional provision that say “there shall be no discrimination among citizens on the basis of marital status”, a gaping gender disparity prevails with naturalised citizenship as well. A foreign spouse of a Nepali man can get a Nepali citizenship soon after their marriage. There is no such provision for foreign spouses of Nepali women. Existing laws allow non-Nepali women married to Nepali men to become citizens soon after they start the process of renouncing their original nationalities. But the constitution does not specify how long a non-Nepali man married to a Nepali woman has to wait before he can apply for a Nepali citizenship.

Furthermore, Article 11.7 of the constitution says that children of Nepali women married to non-Nepali men will not receive naturalised citizenship unless the husband becomes a Nepali citizen. No such provision exists for children of Nepali men married to non-Nepalis—they are entitled citizenship by descent by default because they have Nepali fathers.

It is a strife 26-year-old Sujan Hazare Dahal knows all too well. Recently, wanting to avoid the dangerous highway during the monsoon, he had booked a flight from Pokhara to Kathmandu. Hazare Dahal, who had never been on a plane before, would be turned away from the airport because he doesn’t have any official documents. He will not be getting on a plane anytime soon.

Hazare Dahal, a bachelor student in mass communication, has been making rounds at the offices of the Chief District Officer in Pokhara for five years now. Born in Nepal to an Indian father and a Nepali mother, he considers himself a Nepali in every respect. The law, however, does not recognise him as a one, simply because his mother, not his father, is a Nepali citizen. Furthermore, after the death of his father, Nitin, Hazare Dahal has all but lost hopes of becoming a citizen. The law states that children of Nepali mothers with foreign spouses can acquire a Nepali citizenship only after the spouse has acquired a naturalised citizenship of the country.

“My father died without obtaining the citizenship and now even though he had stayed in Nepal for over 21 years and their marriage is registered here in Pokhara, the government administration says I am not eligible to become a Nepali citizen,” says Hazare Dahal, who now finds himself in a troublesome quandary.  He has been using his mother’s bank account, and her citizenship to obtain SIM-cards for his cell phone, but he has no idea how he will continue his life after his now-frail mother passes away.

“The current constitutional provision bars women from passing on citizenship to their children. For a Nepali woman to pass on citizenship to her child, as per the citizenship law, she needs to prove that the whereabouts of her husband are unknown. The provision is silent about a single male parent when it comes to passing on citizenship,” says advocate Subin Mulmi. Mulmi, who has been at the frontlines of the citizenship debate, believes that unless historic gender biases, institutionalised by the constitution, are addressed, the country will continue to create pariahs who are systematically denied equal rights and opportunities based on their birth—something they don’t have any control over.

“Denying a woman the right to pass on citizenship to her children is one way that a patriarchal society can control her womb. It is not associated with national security like some of our leaders say,” accuses Dipti Gurung, a mother who has been fighting the legal system for over half a decade to acquire citizenships for her two teenage daughters. Gurung is also the coordinator of an alliance of people fighting to pass on citizenship in the name of the mother. Frustrated with her long battle with the state, her disillusion has reached a tipping point, “Unless you hand women the right to choose her spouse and pass on citizenship to her children, you cannot talk of women empowerment in any other form. They are all hollow words that sweep the real issues under the mat,” she says.

By Pratichya Dulal