Women’s Rights in Conferring Citizenship

Photo by Dayvison de Oliveira Silva from Pexels by Emono Bwacha A citizen of a country is basically someone who has legal ties to that country. One of the most common definitions of citizenship is that it is “the sum total of rights and duties ensuing for a given person by reason of his legal affiliation to a certain State”[1] The concept of citizenship legally ties an individual to a particular region or country. As a direct result, the individual has obligations to said region or country and in return, the region or country grants the individual rights to enjoy as a citizen. There are different ways by which a person can become a citizen of a country. It can be by birth, naturalization, registration, marriage, and an honorary citizenship can also be conferred on a person by the government of a country. Regardless of how one becomes a citizen of a country, he/she – ideally – gets to enjoy all the rights applicable to citizens of the country regardless of age or gender.    In Nigeria, Section 42 of the Constitution prohibits any form of discrimination and promotes equal enjoyment of rights by all. On paper, it seems like a pretty straight forward segment of the constitution. In reality however, there are certain other provisions of the law that seem to promote the unequal enjoyment of rights between men and women, one of which is the right to transmit citizenship.   Take Section 26 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (CFRN) 1999 (as amended) which relates to citizenship for instance. The law allows Nigerian men the right to confer citizenship on another person, but Nigeria women cannot enjoy that same right. This Section clearly states that the president may confer citizenship on “any woman who is or who has been married to a citizen of Nigeria”. By legal interpretation, this limits Nigerian women from transferring their citizenship to their foreign husbands. This is in direct contradiction of the provisions of Section 42 which prohibits discrimination based on sex, religion, and/or ethnic group.   The experience of women’s citizenship is that it is treated as being of secondary or devalued status relative to men’s. The solution to this would be an amendment to the provision as there is no excuse for why men can transfer their Nigerian citizenship to their spouses, but Nigerian women cannot.   Also, in many countries, women cannot transfer citizenship to their children. This has caused some issues of statelessness as outlined by the United Nations (UN).[2] According to the UN, equality between men and women in relation to conferral of nationality upon their children has not yet been attained in 25 countries over the world, with a significant number of these States found in the Middle East and North Africa (12 countries).[3] More than fifty countries have nationality laws with gender-discriminatory provisions, with most denying women the same rights as men to pass nationality to a noncitizen spouse.[4]   Under the 1962 citizenship law of Somalia, mothers have no ability to confer their nationality on their children. In Eswatini (formerly the Kingdom of Swaziland), the constitution stipulates that a child born after 2005 can only acquire nationality from their Swazi fathers, unless the child was born out of wedlock and has not been claimed by the father in accordance with customary law: in which case the Swazi mother can pass on her nationality. In addition, Eswatini’s 1992 Citizenship Act contains the same provisions applicable to children born after 1992.[5]   In a country like Nigeria where citizenship is experienced differently at both National and State levels, this brings in another issue women face with regards their ‘State of Origin’. Citizenship at the State level is defined in a patriarchal way, in terms of the ‘State of origin’ of one’s father but never their mother. In simple terms, children cannot identify with the State of origin of their mothers. They can only identify with the State of origin of their father. It becomes harder for women when they get married because they are then expected to abandon their fathers’ ‘State of origin’ and claim that of their husbands. In practise however, when the woman wants to run for office in her ‘new’ State, people from the State deny her this right because ‘she wasn’t born here’. If she then goes back to her father’s State of origin, people from there claim she’s no longer from that State because she is married to someone from another state. This has created confusion for many women, especially those vying – and are deserving – of leadership positions across many sectors of the economy.   When women are denied these rights that are meant to be accessed by all citizens, it means they are looked on as second-class citizens. It is therefore important to amend these segments of the constitution to ensure women are treated as equally as men are. Equality in citizenship rights is not only fundamental to women’s rights but also supports child’s rights and sustainable development.   [1] Ordor A. “Sharing the Citizenship of Women: A Comparative Gendered Analysis of the Concept of ‘Legal Personhood’ in Africa” (2000). [2] UNHCR, “Background Note on Gender Equality, Nationality Laws and Statelessness” (2014). [3] UNHCR, ‘Background Note on Gender Equality, Nationality Laws and Statelessness” (2020). [4] The UN Refugee Agency, “Time for all nationality laws to uphold women and men’s equality, says UN and civil society leaders” (2020). [5] UNHCR, ‘Background Note on Gender Equality, Nationality Laws and Statelessness” (2020).

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