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State’s Otero on Statelessness and Gender Discrimination
October 27, 2011

Remarks on Statelessness and Gender Discrimination

U.S. Department of State
Remarks by Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs
Refugees International Event, U.S. Institute of Peace

Washington, DC
October 25, 2011


Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be here with you all today. I want to thank Refugees International for hosting this important conference, and to our hosts at the U.S. Institute of Peace. It’s an honor to be on a panel with such distinguished individuals working at every level to improve nationality rights globally.

We know that as many as 12 million people around the world are not recognized as citizens by any state. They live in every region of the world, at the margins of the formal economy and political system, largely hidden without government recognition.

There are many factors that contribute to statelessness. Foremost among those factors is an issue that we’re all here to discuss today; and it’s an issue that is particularly important to both President Obama and Secretary Clinton. And that is discrimination against women.

Let me start with a brief story. In Bangladesh, a teenage Rohingya girl was raped and later gave birth to a malnourished baby. The mother was born and raised in a refugee camp in Southeastern Bangladesh. Her parents fled from Burma whose 1982 Citizenship Law rendered them stateless. Without citizenship — the Rohingya are regularly subjected to oppression and human rights abuses. No government, no country will claim them. As a result, the girl, her baby, and her parents face a grim future. The baby, now two weeks old, will be the second generation of her family to grow up in a refugee camp.

This is a reality for far too many people in our world. Nationality laws discriminate against women in at least 30 countries, limiting their ability to acquire, retain, and transmit citizenship to their children. In many cases, nationality laws permit only the father to transmit citizenship to his child. And in still other cases, nationality laws strip women of their citizenship upon marriage to a foreign spouse, or prohibit women’s foreign spouses from naturalization.

The result is that hundreds of thousands, even millions are relegated to the shadows of society, without legal protection or a social safety net. Stateless persons typically lack identity documentation, and cannot register births, marriages, or deaths. They often cannot work legally or travel freely. They cannot vote, open a bank account, or own property, and they often lack access to health care and other public services.

Lack of citizenship contributes to cycles of poverty and vulnerability. Unable to locate a birth registration or citizenship document, children are barred from attending school. They may fall victim to abuse and exploitation, including gender-based violence, trafficking in persons, and arbitrary arrest and detention.

There is little research on the issue of statelessness, and even less on gender discrimination in nationality laws. To try to understand the impact of statelessness better, the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration recently funded a study by Kingston University to examine the costs of statelessness. This study used quantitative and qualitative methods to compare the livelihoods of stateless persons with those of citizens in four countries. Among its most striking findings, the study proved that statelessness reduces household income by a third, and reduces the odds of owning one’s home by nearly 60 percent. The average education of stateless households is lower than that of citizens by at least one year and in some cases as many as six years. The study also demonstrated disadvantages for stateless persons in terms of health status, and access to justice and law enforcement.

Recognizing this cycle of defeat, Secretary Clinton has identified women’s nationality rights as an important area of work for the State Department.

At last month’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on women and the economy, Secretary Clinton argued that in these times of global economic strain, we cannot afford to perpetuate the barriers facing women. She noted that, “Some [women] don’t have the power to confer citizenship on their children, so their families have less access to housing and education.”

Under Secretary Clinton’s leadership, the State Department is advocating on behalf of stateless people with foreign governments and civil society organizations. U.S. diplomats around the world are working to generate local political will to reform discriminatory nationality laws. We are also working with partners like those on the panel today to identify and provide documentation to stateless persons. And we are working to protect them from abuse, ensure that they too have access to basic services.

In doing this work, our objectives are straightforward:

1. We want to use the strength of our public diplomacy to increase global awareness of women’s nationality rights.

2. And we want to persuade government officials to amend nationality laws that discriminate against women; we want to ensure universal birth registration; and we want to establish procedures and systems that help stateless people acquire citizenship.

Because, at the end of the day, statelessness is not just a humanitarian or human rights issue — it is a matter of human security and the protection of individuals.

So we are working with U.S. Embassies to engage civil society groups that are advocating on behalf of stateless people. We are beginning conversations with multilateral and regional partners, especially UN agencies, about increasing their role in promoting women’s equal right to nationality. And in particular, we are encouraging UNHCR, my colleague and fellow panelist — High Commissioner Guterres — to elevate this issue within its work and that of other UN agencies.

Let me share one clear example of how the State Department can contribute to the cause of women’s nationality rights. The government of Nepal’s draft constitution has provisions that would actually worsen the country’s nationality laws, which already discriminate against women. This is, of course, the opposite direction of our best hopes for Nepal’s new democracy. In a country where estimates of the stateless population have ranged recently from 800,000 to five million, this portion of Nepal’s draft constitution may actually increase statelessness, further limiting access to secondary education, travel documents, the judicial system, employment, and enfranchisement for millions of women, children and historically marginalized populations. So, the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu is working closely with civil society and the government to move them in a better direction. We are not there yet, but we have reason to believe that our efforts are not wasted.

Let me also say that the United States is concerned about the situation of Tibetan refugees who have lived in Nepal for over 50 years. Though this population is not stateless by law, there is now a third generation of refugees whose status remains unresolved, many of whom who cannot own property or work in the legal economy. The Tibetan refugees should be offered a path to registration and citizenship or other durable status. The U.S. would like to work with Nepal to resolve this protracted refugee situation.

As we work with civil society, I want to applaud the efforts of my fellow panelists, Mona Kareem, Sonia Pierre, Lalia Ducos, and other activists who have continued the fight against discrimination in nationality laws around the world. Your work is critical to achieving gender equality, and I encourage civil society groups — women’s groups, human rights organizations, democracy activists, and others — to increase efforts to combat gender discrimination in nationality laws.

We know that these are tough, often complex issues. But here today, and throughout our work around the world, we are laying a strong foundation of understanding: that nationality rights — especially for women — are key to countries’ democratic governance, peace and stability, and economic development.

Many countries are making substantial progress — among them, Algeria, Botswana, and Indonesia — all of which have eliminated or limited discrimination against women in their nationality laws.

So let us use their victories as renewed energy to advance this important cause. We have our work cut out for us, but together we can achieve equal nationality rights for women, resolve the problem of statelessness, and ensure a brighter future for millions of women and their families.