New York Times: "A Mother’s Love? Of Course. Her Citizenship? Not So Fast"

by Joseph McKeown


Twenty-seven countries around the world do not allow or limit the ability of mothers to pass on their citizenship to their children and a non-citizen spouse, according to data from the United Nations. In countries such as Iran and Qatar, for example, restrictive laws state that women cannot pass citizenship onto their children even if the children are left stateless, while in Nepal or the United Arab Emirates, there are exceptions if the father is unknown or stateless himself. Such laws restricting citizenship can potentially leave children and stateless parents without identity documents, access to education, health care, or employment. The New York Times explains:

The laws are not just a measure of the unequal treatment of women. They can also have grievous consequences for the children who, as citizens of nowhere, may be kept from being able to go to school. Syrian refugees born in Lebanon, for instance, may be in especially dire straits because so many of their fathers are dead or missing; Lebanon and Syria are among the 27 countries, and Lebanon is among the most restrictive.

While some countries will let a woman pass on citizenship when she is unmarried—and prevent her from doing so when married—advocacy group Equality Now says this reinforces the belief that “a woman, once married, loses her independent identity[.]”

Examining the UN data and other sources, the Pew Research Center found that these types of laws and policies preventing women from transmitting citizenship were present in most countries around the world sixty years ago. Gradually countries have revised their laws, and recently in the past five years, multiple countries, including Kenya, Monaco, Yemen and Senegal, have decided to change their laws to allow women to transmit citizenship. Only last month, Suriname changed its law and now allows women to transmit citizenship to children and non-citizen spouses.

Such restrictions regarding citizenship are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, where twelve out of twenty countries have restrictive nationality laws. In Jordan, the law prohibits women married to non-citizens from passing citizenship to their children. This potentially affects the 84,711 Jordanian women who are married to non-citizens and their 338,000 children, a figure from a recent statement from the country’s Interior Ministry. Laws in Saudi Arabia prevent women married to non-citizens from transferring citizenship to their children; moreover, they are required to obtain government permission prior to marrying a non-citizen, a rule that also applies to Saudi men who want to marry a non-citizen from outside the Gulf Cooperation Council member states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates). Eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa have laws or policies limiting women’s ability to pass citizenship to their children, even though three of these countries—Burundi, Liberia and Togo—have “enshrined the principle of gender equality” in their constitutions. Men in these listed countries have few if any barriers in transmitting citizenship to their children and non-citizen spouse.

In the Asia-Pacific region five countries have laws or policies limiting women in their ability to pass citizenship to their families. Two in the Americas have similarly restrictive laws, including in the Bahamas, where the law “makes it easier for men with foreign spouses than for women with foreign spouses to transmit citizenship to their children,” according to a State Department Human Rights Report.    

The United Nations tracks citizenship laws as part of its mandate to monitor stateless populations, particularly stateless children who cannot acquire nationality from either parent. While in most circumstances children can obtain nationality from their father, if the father is stateless, the child may also be at risk to become stateless. With nearly one in one hundred people displaced from their homes, the highest amount since World War II, stateless peoples and children are especially vulnerable and at risk.