Women and men from states across the Middle East and North Africa affected by gender discrimination in nationality law gathered last week to discuss their experiences. This exploration of the connection between gender discrimination and statelessness in the MENA region gave a window into the consequences of women not being able to fully benefit from their citizenship because of their gender. Organized by the UNHCR and CRTD-A, a Lebanese NGO that focuses on women’s rights, this joint initiative for a conference: Dialogue with Women on Gender Discrimination and Nationality, was held. Hearing the overwhelming impacts of statelessness from the families themselves- stepping away from the legal and political arguments - gave a moving insight into how living without a legal link to any State leads to a day to day struggle.
Having married a man from Mali, who shortly after having their child left, a mother from Syria told us how this had put her daughter in a hopeless situation. From not being able to obtain a graduation certificate despite having finished 4 years of university education to having no access to employment, she told how her child who was unable to obtain her nationality was living a life unlike her peers’. With inaccessibility to any Mali embassy, she is invisible with no prospects of legal marriage.
A lady married to an Egyptian who had passed away before being able to register their children also shared her story. Unable to give them her Jordanian nationality, she was left with bringing up six stateless children on her own. Being the only person in the household who can work and provide for the family, she committed her life to getting an education for her children. Her eldest son, who she struggled to get trained as a nurse, cannot access work in this field and hence is suffering from depression.
A child of a mother in a similar position, this time from Lebanon, talked about the direct influence this issue had on his life, his family’s life and the effect this had on the community around him. Despite being proud of his national sporting achievements and raising the Lebanese flag on an international stage, he cannot obtain Lebanese nationality papers. Two families have been rendered stateless, he cannot obtain the nationality of his country from his mother, his children cannot obtain it from his wife. The future of his children and the viscous cycle they will continue to be in was what worried him most.
These are just three of the many intricate stories shared. Talking to all the participants it was striking to hear the common consequences generations have had to face because the woman married a non-citizen. Hearing and seeing how practical obstacles caused such psychological effects on the lives of many often led to emotional scenes for all.
Another unpromising and discerning theme common between the individuals was the dependency on discretionary acts to help them with their problems. When asked how they had tried to change their position and what procedures they had taken to address them, there was always one answer. Wasta – having contacts in significant positions. They all felt that the only opportunity to get help by knowing the right people, and those who knew no-one had no hope of change. They were all aware of the social political and economic reasons behind the gender discrimination, but understanding the situation did not make it more acceptable.
Many representatives of women’s organizations across the MENA also joined the conference. On Wednesday they discussed initiatives and strategies they had implemented in their own countries to advocate for change. Yemeni, Moroccan and Algerian representatives explained the steps they had taken which resulted in reform - although not always exhaustive reform - in their own countries. These included cooperation with international bodies, religious leaders, media campaigns, and continued pressure - often for many years - on the political decision makers. There are many types of discrimination across much of the legislation in the region, but none so direct as male-dependent nationality. Often achieving change required changing societal perspectives before approaching legislative reform.
There were periods where the affected participants expressed hopelessness and lacked any real faith in future changes. Uncertainty of what the future held for their families angered and saddened everyone present. Stories varied, details and procedures changed. But the suffering between the individuals was the same. All due to a piece of paper they could not obtain. All due to institutional gender discrimination.
Zahra Albarazi, MENA Project Coordinator, Statelessness Programme