Civil Rights - Progress and Disparity

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Ending patriarchal nationality laws

A woman's right to pass on her nationality to her children is protected by article 9 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It states that women shall be granted "equal rights with men with respect to the nationality of their children."

Yet at least 14 countries that have ratified CEDAW have lodged reservations to article 9, indicating that they will not be bound by it; Turkey has entered a declaration to a similar effect.

In most of the countries that have lodged reservations, a woman may pass on her nationality to her child if the father is unknown. But when a female national is married to a foreigner, her child must either take the father's nationality or remain stateless.

In that case, the child becomes a foreigner in the country of her or his birth and may be excluded from free schooling, health care and other services provided to citizens.

Since CEDAW came into force in 1981, at least 10 countries have changed their citizenship laws to give women the right to pass on their nationality to their children. Japan and Switzerland amended their laws on this issue in 1985; Italy in 1987; Viet Nam in 1988; Luxembourg and Malta in 1989; Thailand in 1991; India in 1992; South Africa in 1994; and Botswana in 1995.

Before its reform in 1992, India's legal system, based on colonial practice, granted citizenship only according to the father's nationality. In Bangladesh and Pakistan the same 'inherited' system is still in place.

In fact, just because a country has not lodged a formal reservation to article 9 does not guarantee that citizenship laws allow women the right to pass nationality on to their children or that governments support that right.

Most, but not all, countries that base their legal systems on Islamic Sharia have lodged reservations to article 9. In Egypt, it is estimated that several hundred thousand children have been prevented from obtaining Egyptian nationality because their fathers are citizens of another country.

These children must repeatedly apply for short-term residence and are required to pay (in foreign currency) for education in government schools and universities, which is free for Egyptian citizens.

Countries with reservations to article 9 of CEDAW:

  • Algeria
  • Bahamas
  • Cyprus*
  • Egypt
  • Fiji
  • Iraq
  • Jordan
  • Kuwait
  • Lebanon
  • Malaysia
  • Maldives**
  • Morocco
  • Rep. of Korea
  • Tunisia
* Reservation will be withdrawn upon amendment of relevant law.
** Reservation to all articles contrary to Sharia.
Sources: UN Office of Legal Affairs, 1998; R. Boland (editor, Annual Review of Population Law, Harvard University).

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