Growing up in Nepal, Neha Gurung hoped to become a doctor, but her dreams were shattered when she was barred from medical school because the country she called home did not recognise her as a national.
Gurung was raised by a single mother, but Nepal does not let women automatically pass citizenship to their children. With her father untraceable, she was left stateless – a fate she likened to “being a prisoner in my own country”.
Hundreds of thousands of people in the Himalayan nation exist in a similar limbo for a host of complex legal, social and historical reasons, but a long-awaited law could now transform their lives, providing access to jobs, education and healthcare.
The reforms could also spur other countries to take action ahead of a 2024 deadline for ending statelessness worldwide, which is way off track.
Certificates of citizenship are the key to basic rights in Nepal including formal employment. But legal experts say flawed laws – rooted in patriarchal and xenophobic attitudes – have left many shut out.
“The feeling of exclusion is very strong,” Gurung told Context.
“I couldn’t study, get a driving licence, open a bank account or travel. Without citizenship, I couldn’t even get a SIM card for my phone.”
Stateless people – who are not recognised as citizens of any nation – typically rely on informal, low paid jobs and cannot buy property, legally marry or vote.
Deprived of opportunities and legal protections, they are at risk of exploitation and easy prey for criminals.
Gurung, 28, who acquired citizenship in 2017 following a five-year legal battle, said laws that left people stateless not only had tragic consequences for individuals, but also held back development and entrenched poverty.
“Once a person is stateless, their children will be stateless – generation after generation. And that’s a huge loss to the country.”
After qualifying as a lawyer, Gurung joined the Forum for Women, Law and Development, a human rights non-profit which worked with parliament on the reforms.
The Forum anticipated that more than one million people could benefit.
They include an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 people whose parents were granted a form of citizenship that they could not pass on to their children, and many others whose mothers are Nepali but whose fathers cannot be traced.
However, campaigners said the law was still discriminatory and many people would remain stateless, including some Dalit communities in the southern plains that have been stateless for generations.
As the authorities began releasing citizenship certificates, many newly recognised Nepalis shared their joy on social media, posting photos of themselves holding their prized identity documents.
Those celebrating included activist Indrajit Saphi, 31, who had spearheaded a national grassroots campaign for reforms, organised protests and helped thousands lodge applications.
Saphi hopes to become an engineer while his three brothers will now be able to apply for passports to take up jobs overseas.
“I am very happy. My entire family is very happy (that) we are now citizens of our country,” he said.
Perbej Alam’s lack of citizenship drove him to the brink of depression, but the 21-year-old now hopes to study public health.
“This has opened a path for my future,” he added.
The Nepal Citizenship (First Amendment) Act effectively came into force on June 22 following a long and tortuous legislative process and repeated challenges by populist politicians.
A last-minute delay sparked protests in the capital Kathmandu last month with one man trying to set himself alight after dousing himself in petrol.
Citizenship is a highly politicised issue in Nepal, a small country of 30 million sandwiched between the world’s most populous countries, China to the north and India to the south.
It shares a long open border with the latter allowing millions to cross both ways for work.
The number of people without citizenship is particularly high in the south where mixed marriages are common.
Campaigners said years of marginalisation had left many with mental health issues.
Forum for Women, Law and Development executive director Sabin Shrestha said some people were considering suing the government for compensation over lost opportunities due to the protracted delays.
There are no reliable data for the number of stateless people worldwide, but some estimates have suggested there could be 10 to 15 million.
In 2014, the UN launched a global campaign called “#Ibelong” to end statelessness in a decade, but progress has been extremely slow with only about 450,000 acquiring citizenship.
Monika Sandvik, head of the UN refugee agency’s statelessness section, said Nepal’s reforms could inspire other governments to follow suit and would bring broad benefits to the country.
“How many doctors, have they lost by not giving people citizenship? How many engineers? This reform now opens doors for people to fulfil their potential.”
Giving people a legal identity and access to jobs would also boost Nepal’s tax revenues, she added.
Subin Mulmi, a Nepali lawyer and executive director of Nationality For All, an organisation working to end statelessness in Asia, welcomed the reforms, but said there was still a need to address underlying discrimination in the country’s constitution.
Campaigners are particularly concerned about a provision in the new law requiring mothers submit a declaration that their child’s father is untraceable, with the threat of a three-year jail term if the information later proves false.
They said the stigma attached to making a statement in Nepal’s strongly patriarchal society combined with the threat of prosecution would act as a deterrent to many women.
Nepali women will also not be able to apply for citizenship for children born abroad, with serious implications for many migrant workers who give birth overseas, often as a result of rape, and for victims of trafficking.
“This is definitely not the end of the reform process,” Mulmi said. “There’s a lot of work still to be done.”
Additional reporting by Gopal Sharma in Kathmandu.