Does Nepal’s New Constitution Miss the Boat on Women’s Rights?

Activists say the new constitution highlights the lack of gender equality in the Himalayan country.

Women activists lie down on the road near the police barricade during their sleeping protest demanding women's rights in the new constitution in Kathmandu, Nepal, on Aug. 7. (Photo: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters)

Sep 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

After seven years of setbacks and drafts, Nepal formally adopted the final version of its first democratic constitution on Sunday. The new constitution was a welcome development for many lawmakers and citizens who were eager for some semblance of stability in a year scarred by a devastating earthquake—but proved equally divisive among the many disparate minority and ethnic groups. Human rights advocates say women are left particularly vulnerable.

“The new constitution has a number of major human rights shortcomings which also need to be urgently addressed. In particular, the rights of women and marginalized communities are not clearly and sufficiently protected,” said David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s research director for South Asia.

The constitution does take some progressive steps for women. Violence against women based on any cultural, religious, or traditional practices is criminalized; property rights are now equal for men and women; and there is a requirement that at least 33 percent of parliamentary members be women. Yet, amid what appear to be major victories, the constitution doesn’t allow single women to confer citizenship rights to their children. The problem is particularly pronounced for a Nepali women who has a child with a foreigner: While a Nepali man may confer citizenship to his child if his wife is foreign, the same rule does not apply to Nepali women

“Misogyny is clearly evident as driving the citizenship chapter in the new constitution,” Sapana Pradhan Malla, the gender adviser to the office of Nepal’s prime minister, wrote in The Himalayan Times.

Nepali women protested lawmakers’ failure to update that part of the interim constitution heartily in the weeks leading up to the constitution’s adoption and which has been contested by human rights organizations for years.

Bloody protests initiated by the new constitution’s opponents over its lack of inclusiveness broke out across the Himalayan nation, killing 40 people in the months leading up to its formal adoption on Sunday. The protesters challenged the exclusion and neglect of many marginalized ethnic groups, including the Madhesi and Tharu, who take issue with the way the new constitution divides the country into seven federal provinces that they say will minimize their political power.

Among the protesters were women’s rights activists, some of whom participated in a more than two-week-long hunger strike leading up to the constitution’s adoption to draw attention to their inability to pass on citizenship to their children, according to The Kathmandu Post. The Constituent Assembly that voted on the constitution’s passage rejected a proposed amendment that would have addressed the citizenship issue, the paper reports. Because both the interim constitution and the new one prevent single mothers from conferring citizenship by birth, or from conferring citizenship to children born to foreign fathers, thousands of people in Nepal are stateless—800,000 people in the country were stateless in 2011, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“This decision has brought shame to Nepal in the international arena, as it is against various international conventions the country has signed to ensure equal rights of women,” Renu Rajbhandari, president of Women’s Rehabilitation Center, a Nepal-based women’s rights organization told The Post.

Nepal is the only South Asian country that differentiates between women's and men’s citizenship rights but it is one of 27 countries in the world that do so. The vast majority of these countries are in the Middle East and Africa. Restrictive nationality laws such as Nepal’s are a major concern to the UNHCR, which tracks developments in the laws each year to track and prevent statelessness.

While Nepal’s failure to amend its law preventing women from conferring statelessness to their children is discouraging, the United Nations has found a “growing willingness and commitment by states to take action to achieve gender equality in nationality laws.” In the past five years, countries such as Senegal, Tunisia, Kenya, Yemen, and Monaco have reformed their restrictive nationality laws.

In spite of the gains made, the new constitution has highlighted the lack of gender equality in Nepal for many women.

“I’ve come to feel that being a Nepali woman is akin to being in an abusive relationship,” wrote author and translator Manjushree Thapa, in an article subtitled, "Why I Burned My Country’s New Constitution," for the Kathmandu-based magazine The Record. “The relationship in this case is with a state that holds our paperwork captive, and uses its power to humiliate, demean, and demoralize women, to keep us down.”