KATMANDU – Nepalese single mother Deepti Gurung has spent years trying and failing to register her two teenage daughters as citizens of their country.
Although her children were both born in Nepal, the 40-year-old has struggled to secure their legal right to citizenship in the absence of their father, who left when they were small.
For now, at least, the law is on her side.
But Nepal’s parliament is proposing to bar all single parents from passing on their citizenship to their children in a new national constitution, sparking outrage among rights activists.
“It is like being a refugee in your own country,” said Gurung.
“All they do is interrogate, torture and harass women, demanding the father’s documents . . . when a father applies for his children’s citizenship, no questions are asked.”
Activists say the move could leave a million people stateless and will disproportionately affect women, who account for the vast majority of single parents in Nepal.
The draft bill says both parents must be Nepalese for their child to acquire citizenship, which is needed to get anything from a driving license to a bank account.
It will overturn a 2006 act that says children are eligible for citizenship as long as one parent is Nepalese.
The Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD), a Nepalese pressure group, says the move will impact a million children, with more than 90 percent of those affected living with single mothers.
“On paper the law looks restrictive to both men and women,” said Subin Mulmi of the FWLD.
“But conservative bureaucrats have room to exploit the clauses to discriminate against single mothers.”
The bill provides for exceptions in some cases where the child’s father is unknown, such as rape, but Mulmi said the burden of proof will still rest with mothers.
And even though women have been allowed to confer citizenship on their children since 2006, only a handful have managed to do so.
Arjun Kumar Sah was born in Nepal to a Nepalese mother and an Indian father, making him theoretically eligible for citizenship.
But the 25-year-old is still waiting for his papers and in the meantime has had to turn down work because of his status.
“I was born here, I grew up here, I am a Nepali…(but) I am still waiting for papers that prove it,” said Sah, who is from Nepal’s historically marginalized Madhesi ethnic minority.
Despite a Maoist insurgency that overthrew the monarchy, Nepal’s political establishment remains dominated by high-caste Hindu men — and many believe they want to keep it that way.
“The political forces in power right now are not supportive of change and inclusiveness, they want to maintain the old status-quo,” said Dipendra Jha, a lawyer working on Sah’s case.
Nepal’s parliament is due to vote next year on the long-awaited constitution, which was intended to draw a line under centuries of inequality.
Lawmakers were tasked with drafting the charter after a decade-long insurgency ignited by deep-rooted social, political and economic inequalities.
But activists say the current draft — which also makes it easier for a Nepalese man to confer citizenship on his foreign spouse than a Nepalese woman — will only entrench existing prejudices.
“This bill is the result of the flawed patriarchal attitude ingrained in our society,” said lawmaker Krishna Bhakta Pokharel, who sat on the constitution-drafting committee but who opposes the citizenship changes.
Campaigners have fought back with demonstrations in the capital and an online petition on the social action website, Change.org, which has secured more than 1,500 signatures in over a week.
Meanwhile, single mothers like Gurung say they are furious at the prospect of the bill becoming law and forever closing the door on her right to confer citizenship.
“Sometimes it feels like women are not even human here . . . like we do not have any identity,” she said.
“I gave birth to my children, I raised them . . . why can I not pass them my citizenship? Am I not an equal citizen of this country?”