Why Nationality Rights Protect Women’s Safety

BU Intl Human Rights
4 min readMay 22, 2023
Photo from the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, https://equalnationalityrights.org/news/110-malaysian-court-upholds-women-s-equal-nationality-rights-gcenr-statement

Since its inception, the Statelessness Project of Boston University International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) has advocated for the adoption of gender-equal nationality legislation — granting men and women equal access to nationality and citizenship rights. As of today, 24 countries do not allow women to pass their nationality to their children on an equal basis with men and 50 countries deny women equal rights with men in their ability to acquire, change, retain their nationality, or to confer nationality on non-national spouses. These discriminatory laws include: only allowing nationality to be passed by paternal descent; revoking a woman’s nationality if she marries a foreign man; only allowing men to confer nationality on a foreign spouse; and more. Past reports from the IHRC have recommended the reform of these kinds of laws in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq. This year, the IHRC is focusing on Morocco for their upcoming 2023 report. While Morocco has been widely praised for amending its gender-discriminatory nationality code in 2007 to allow women to pass nationality to their children, the law remains unequal in that only Moroccan men, not Moroccan women, can pass nationality to a foreign spouse.

Gender-discriminatory nationality laws have tangible effects on women’s ability to own property, exercise political agency, and keep themselves safe. Nationality laws that discriminate on the basis of gender also contradict international legal norms, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, Article 9). Amending such laws is urgent and necessary, as they have consequences for large numbers of people all across the world. An oft-overlooked phenomenon is the relationship between access to nationality and gender-based violence (GBV).

GBV encompasses all forms of violence committed against a person because of her gender identity, including — of particular concern in this context — intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and child marriage. Lack of access to nationality due to gender discrimination can increase the risk of these three forms of violence against women.

The risk of intimate partner violence, or domestic violence (DV), exists for people of all genders across the world. But in countries where they do not have equal access to nationality women will face greater obstacles to leaving an abusive relationship. For example, a woman who cannot pass her nationality to her children might stay with an abusive husband so that he can assist their children in establishing their nationality and obtaining the benefits that come with citizenship. Or, if a woman is not able to confer her nationality on a foreign spouse, she may become the only person who can be legally employed in her household — creating tensions or the potential for economic exploitation in her marriage. Statelessness also has an impact on a woman’s educational and employment opportunities, limiting her ability to support herself if she were to leave an abusive spouse. Women deprived of citizenship due to gender discrimination in nationality laws will also often be unable to access public services like healthcare (including sexual and reproductive care) and the protection of the justice system. This leads to untreated, lasting impacts of violence and abuse among affected women, and an absence of prosecution against perpetrators.

Outside of intimate relationships, women who are stateless may be especially vulnerable to experiencing violence more generally. Again, because of their limited employment opportunities, women and girls who lack nationality are more susceptible to exploitation and human trafficking schemes. They also might be more vulnerable to violence in the form of physical assault, sexual assault, and sex-based harassment. For example, in the Dominican Republic, 52% of stateless women were found to experience violence and victimization at some point in their lives, compared to 39% of women with legal documentation. Women in situations of displacement are, writ large, less sheltered by community and family protection mechanisms, and therefore more exposed to sexual and gender-based violence.

Gender-discriminatory nationality laws can also increase rates of child marriage and forced marriage. Girls without nationality and without a path to nationality through their parents are at an increased risk of child marriage, as families often seek legal status for their daughters through marriage to citizen-men. However, these marriages may not provide security for these girls or their families — as child marriages often go unregistered and are usually not legally recognized.

Photo from the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, https://equalnationalityrights.org/news/113-statement-on-international-women-s-day-equality-in-law-for-women-and-girls-in-a-digital-age

Morocco is not immune to the plague of gender-based violence. A 2019 national government survey found that 54.4% of fiancées and 52.5% of married women in Morocco had been the victims of violence. Additionally, 12.4% of women aged 18 to 64 reported having been the victim of violence committed in a public place.

In addressing statelessness in any country, the real, violent effects of gender-discriminatory legislation should not be understated. Moreover, statelessness and gender discrimination in nationality access must be a concern for all women’s rights activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who seek to reduce gender-based violence. As the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Access put it: “At their core, gender-discriminatory nationality laws are drivers of GBV because they perpetuate women’s unequal status in society and within the family.” To have as much protection from violence as possible, all women need to have a clear legal path to nationality on an equal basis as men, everywhere in the world.



BU Intl Human Rights

Boston University School of Law's International Human Rights Clinic.