Bringing Stateless "Out of the Shadows"

By Michael Boyce

Today, leaders from government, civil society, and the UN gathered at the US Institute of Peace to explore statelessness and its impact on women worldwide. The Institute's sparkling new headquarters played host to an insightful and inspiring discussion - a fitting kick-off for a week full of stateless advocacy here at RI.

After a welcome by RI President Michel Gabaudan, participants heard from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who declared: "Statelessness is the most forgotten global human rights problem in the world today. Everyone knows what a refugee is, but many do not know what it means to be stateless."

"Because they lack access to the most basic rights, many stateless people are driven to desperation. It's something the world should be ashamed of," Mr. Guterres said. "And at the origin of many statelessness issues is gender discrimination."

Maria Otero, US under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs, added that because of statelessness, "millions are being relegated to the shadows of society." 

"Our objective is straightforward," she said of the US government's approach to the issue. "We want to use the strength of our public diplomacy to raise awareness of this issue, persuade governments to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws, and achieve universal birth registration" so no child will be born stateless.

Ultimately, though, it was the testimony of three female statelessness advocates that most moved participants. Mona Kareem, a member of Kuwait's stateless bidoun community, told the audience that despite the hardships she had faced because of her status - harassment, legal troubles, travel restrictions - she was "the luckiest of my community."

"Many of my friends could only hope to marry a good husband," who might provide them with Kuwaiti citizenship, "or for death to take them away by committing suicide." She added, "None of them have hope. None of them even use the word 'hope'. Bidoun women have to confront both the conservatism of their community and the injustice of their country."

Sonia Pierre, a Domincan of Haitian descent whose nationality is under review, gave an emotional account of the oppression facing her community.  "To be a woman, to be a mother, to defend human rights is hard - especially in my country, where sometimes it feels like we're fighting against the whole state," she said through an interpreter.

"In September of this year, a young girl of Haitian descent was raped and killed," Ms. Pierre recounted. "Her killer was made to pay just 500 pesos and then released...The judge said, 'This girl doesn't exist.' Her mother wants justice for her child, but she doesn't exist either."

The proceedings closed on a hopeful note, however, with Lalia Ducos of Algeria, who spoke of her organization's success in changing Algeria's nationality law to grant women equal rights with men. 

"We need to educate one another about our experiences and organize internationally," she said through an interpreter. "Women have been leaders in the recent Arab revolutions, but the institutions to protect their rights will not build themselves...We need to make sure women's rights blossom alongside democracy."

For more information, check out RI's work on statelessness, or read our recent report on the bidoun of Kuwait.


Comment on violence suffered by women

I am a first world woman who for 15yrs suffered domestic violence, I therefore abhor any violence against any woman, anywhere and any time. All women should be afforded dignity and respect simply because they are the bearers of the children, the next generation of all humanity. Men who perpetrate violence against women have no respect for humanity, no respect for themselves. Governments need to rewrite their laws, so that violence against women is seen in the same light as violence against men. We will not achieve equality under the law, whilst violence against women is seen as acceptable, and given a cloak, this cloak is domestic or marriage. Law enforcement agencies by enlarge treat domestic violence different from other forms of violence. Marriage, which should be a form of protection for women, has instead become the excuse to carry out violence against women.