Twelve Million People Worldwide Are Stateless, and Gender Discrimination Is Making the Situation Worse

September 25, 2014

Twenty years ago First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke in Beijing before the Fourth World Conference on Women and declared: “If there is one message that echoes from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

Since then, gender equality has found growing global support and has made progress on many fronts, such as closing the gap in primary school enrollment, but work still remains. For one, women worldwide do not enjoy the same rights of nationality as men do. There are still 27 countries that discriminate against women in their nationality laws and prevent them from passing their nationality onto their children. In over 60 countries, women are prevented from acquiring, changing, or retaining their nationality in the same way as men. This gender discrimination violates international law and has severe consequences for families around the world.

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to a nationality, and Article 2 states that everyone is entitled to the rights and freedoms described in the Declaration without discrimination on the basis of sex. In 1965, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) echoed these rights and 188 states have become parties to the convention. Article 9 explicitly recognizes the right of women to confer nationality to their children, but this provision has been weakened by the number of states that have entered reservations, or caveats, to this article.

Gender discrimination is a major cause of statelessness, of having no nationality and being citizen of nowhere. Children can become stateless when the father is stateless himself or when he is unable (or unwilling) to pass his nationality onto his children under the law of his state. In some cases, countries strip women of their nationality when they marry someone from another country.

The estimated 12 million stateless people around the world who have no nationality suffer serious consequences. Without a legal identity, stateless individuals have no rights to vote or access the justice system. Depending on their country of residence, they may be prevented from owning property, registering births and marriages, working legally, or accessing education and health systems. Stateless people are at risk of abuse and exploitation and protracted periods of detention during deportation proceedings.

In most cases, states would need only a slight change in the wording of nationality laws to grant equality to women. For example, when Morocco amended their nationality code in 2007, reform consisted of adding just four words. A child is now considered Moroccan if he or she is “born to a Moroccan father or a Moroccan mother.”

In December of 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged to work with Congress to introduce legislation providing a mechanism for stateless persons to obtain residency and eventually citizenship. Under current law, it is nearly impossible for stateless individuals to obtain residency, asylum, or citizenship in the United States because they have no recognized legal status. There are two proposed bills which aim to remedy this situation. Both of these bills propose to provide new protections for stateless persons by authorizing the secretary of homeland security or the attorney general to grant conditional lawful status to certain groups of stateless persons already residing in the United States. This status would allow stateless individuals to work in the country and provides a path to permanent residence after one year.

We are planning to do further work on the issue of statelessness over the next two years, and we would welcome your thoughts on the issue. But one policy direction for the United States, at least, is already clear: the secretary of homeland security and attorney general should work closely with Congress to enact legislation that provides the stateless with a path to citizenship.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.