Some 7 percent of Nepal’s almost 27 million people may lack citizenship documents, excluding them from government-funded services.
“This is the central document of existence in Nepal,” said Hari Phuyal, a human rights lawyer in the capital, Kathmandu. “The denial of a citizenship certificate means the denial of access to the state, which means these people are stateless.”
Not having citizenship documents means being blocked from government jobs and pensions, driver’s licenses and passports, as well as government-run programmes like secondary school exams and health services. Bank accounts, land inheritance and the right to vote are also out of reach.
People in communities far from district administration offices, where citizenship certificates are processed, often do not understand the importance of obtaining these documents. Even when they do, they may lack the identification required to apply for a birth certificate, which starts the process.
Cases involving Dalits - members of the so-called “untouchable” caste - number in the tens of thousands, said Hast Bahadur Sunar, the National Citizenship Project Coordinator at the Dalit NGO Federation in Nepal.
“When I went to apply for my citizenship at age 16, I was told I need to register my caste as my surname or I could not have one [citizenship certificate],” Prakash Bishnu Karma,* 23, a farmer in the Far West Region of Nepal, told IRIN.
He declined because he did not want to face caste-based discrimination every time he produced his identity card. “My caste is not my name, but it is the name my father and his father were forced to register with the government when they were young,” said Bishnu Karma, referring to a historical state practice.
“In the past eight months alone, we have identified over 14,000 people who lack citizenship certificates,” said Sunar. The reasons include not owning land - and therefore not having proof of residency - absent fathers, and name-based discrimination.
Nepal’s Citizenship Act of 2006 allows children to inherit their parents’ citizenship, but in practice mothers cannot pass on citizenship unless they can prove their husband has died or abandoned them, both of which expose them to social stigma.
Many Dalits in rural areas are extremely poor and the men often migrate for work. “Without a father, people can’t register as a citizen,” said Sunar.
“This blatantly discriminates against women,” said Sabin Shrestha, executive director of the local NGO Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD). “This is particularly harmful at this point in Nepal’s history, when men have died or disappeared in Nepal’s recent conflict, or migrated to support their families and not returned.”
A decade of civil war between former Maoist fighters and the government, which killed more than 14,000 people and displaced another 200,000, ended in 2006 with a peace deal that is still being implemented.
FWLD knows of 127 women thus far who have gained citizenship for their children, including some who were willing to list the fathers as “unidentified”, which “invites a lifetime of stigma for mother and child”, Shrestha said.
Call for inclusivity
After six years of political deadlock, the recently announced unity government faces a constitution-drafting deadline of 27 May. Activists hope the long-awaited constitution will boost rights guaranteed in existing laws. If not, the problems related to obtaining citizenship documents to confirm what is usually regarded as a birthright could multiply.
“We have people without access to citizenship now who will marry other people without citizenship, and give birth to children who have no chance at getting a citizenship certificate,” Shrestha pointed out.
A recent meeting of the country’s four largest political parties agreed on a new federal structure with 11 provinces. Lack of an inclusive citizenship policy may presage political instability, said human rights lawyer Phuyal. “[Nepal is] about to institute a new federal structure. [The government] is redrawing lines and re-assigning people to new districts or provinces. You can expect difficulties when millions of these people have no state identity to begin with.”
*not his real name