CEDAW, Nepal’s Constitution and Women’s Citizenship Rights

Nepal is a state party to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), ratifying it without reservation in 1991 including the Optional Protocol to CEDAW on June 2007. Nepal also pledged for gender equality and the empowerment of women in the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and committed to the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) in 1995.

Nepal has a young constitution finalized in September 2015 after a couple of constituent assembly elections and a decade long conflict. The process of drafting the constitution was long and weary. Different groups and activists, especially the young people continued to advocate during the drafting process to ensure the constitution would be inclusive and impartial. For the women’s rights activists, it was a time of opportunity to highlight the flaws of the existing interim constitution and make suggestions for reform. Women’s rights groups were mobilized to apply CEDAW as a legal tool to advocate for women’s rights. There were different events, rallies, protests, even hunger strikes to make the lawmakers aware of Nepal’s commitment to CEDAW and BPfA. There were also peaceful protests just to pressure the lawmakers to complete the drafting process on time.

The Constitution came after a long wait, drafted by the Second Constituent Assembly following the failure of the First to produce a constitution in its mandated period. It came into effect on September 20, 2015. It was a welcome development in a year when Nepal was recovering from a devastating earthquake. The constitution received a mixed reaction during its initial days – many lighted oil lamps at their homes to welcome it while many burned the pages of the constitution as a protest. Many groups of people were dissatisfied and many parts of the country were shut down with public demonstrations. Among the disappointed groups were the women and rights activists.  

There were some noticeable strides for gender equality in the new constitution such as reservation of 33 percent seats for women in federal and provincial parliaments, criminalization of violence against women based on any cultural, religious, or traditional practices; equal property rights for men and women; and rights for citizens to choose non-binary gender in their citizenship. Yet, the constitution failed to provide equal citizenship rights to women, which clearly contradicts with Article 9 of the CEDAW. Not only did this provision curtail women’s right to transfer citizenship in an equal capacity as men guaranteed by CEDAW, but due to a lack of clear terminology, it does not resolve the problems for children of single mothers. Even with so many progressive changes, Nepal remains one of the 27 countries in the world which differentiates between women’s and men’s citizenship rights. Due to this, so many (single) women are not able to provide citizenships to their children who remain devoid of the benefits provided by the state – only because their mothers are considered less of a citizen than their non-present father.

Nepal’s failed effort to use and implement CEDAW and BPfA as a legal tool during such an opportune time in the history of the country can be a lesson to other nations as well as for women’s rights activists around the world. This proves that it is important for countries to understand the essence of the conventions they rectify and reflect its ideas in their laws and practices. It is also important to reflect on what role can the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and the international community play during such a crucial time in a country’s history.

Swarnima is a Development Communications specialist and Women’s rights advocate currently serving as an Atlas Corps Fellow at International Action Network for Gender Equity and Law.