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Gender discrimination in camp registration policies and in Nepalese law has deprived many Bhutanese women and children from enjoying equal and full access to humanitarian aid and has also prevented some women from passing their Bhutanese nationality to their children. UNHCR and the government of Nepal have implemented a registration system based on household cards listed under the name of the male household head. They have failed to ensure that all refugee women have independent access to their full entitlement of aid, which is especially critical for women leaving polygynous or abusive households.42

Discrimination against Women and Children in Refugee Registration

The government of Nepal does not register children who have a refugee mother but a non-refugee father. This discriminatory policy denies children rations of food, clothes, and other goods, and makes them ineligible for repatriation to Bhutan. These registration procedures violate children’s right to be free from discrimination based on the sex of their parent or legal guardian.43 Moreover, the practice of allowing refugee men to register children born of non-refugee women, but not allowing the same for refugee women with children fathered by non-refugee men, discriminates on the basis of sex. In the refugee camps, this policy may also violate children’s right to acquire a nationality and render them stateless.44

One twenty-seven-year-old rape survivor said she was unable to register her child conceived as a result of the rape because she could not name the father. Crying, she told Human Rights Watch:

I was raped. The problem is that the child is not registered in the camps because she doesn’t have a father. She doesn’t get clothes. I have submitted a number of applications to the camp management committee. I even went to Chandragadhi.45 The CDO [chief district officer] said they would reply, but they haven’t replied. It was last year that I visited.46

In another case, a twenty-three-year-old refugee woman who married a local Nepalese man has two children who have not been registered. After she married, she left the camps to live with her husband. Facing difficulties in her marriage, including her husband’s refusal to register the children and herself as Nepalese citizens, she returned to her parents and siblings in one of the camps. Although her own rations were reinstated, the RCU has kept her application for the children to be registered as Bhutanese refugees “pending” for the last three years. Without Nepalese citizenship or registration as Bhutanese refugees, these children are stateless. She told Human Rights Watch:

I have rations, but my children don’t. I have to look for the future of my children and would like to go back [to Bhutan] with my family. It’s my husband’s choice if he wants to join us or not. In the camps, the children’s registration is not done. I couldn’t get them admission in the nursery school. Their birth registration is not done outside [in Nepal] or here [in the camps]—. I applied two or three years ago for the children to be registered in the camps, and it has been kept pending since. I just wrote yet another application to the RCU’s office one week ago.47

The inability of refugee women to register their children not only deprives them of aid packages, such as food rations and access to nursery school, but also prevents them from participating in the verification and categorization process that would allow them to be repatriated to Bhutan. Maya S. from Khudanabari camp recounts, “I married a local person—but then we had problems and I came back to the camp. My husband later came to join me. I have a daughter who is three and a son age seven. I have asked the RCU, but they said my children won’t get rations until the [JVT] team comes again, which may be after months or years.48 I asked again one week ago and they said that I won’t get a chance to register my children now. When I went to the verification interview, they snapped my photo but not of my children. During the interview, I asked them to write down the names of my children, but they didn’t write down their names.”49

Human Rights Watch interviewed camp-level and district-level officials from the government of Nepal’s Refugee Coordination Unit. When asked about the policy toward children born of mixed marriages, one camp-level administrator replied, “If a woman marries outside the camp, then if they have children, the children are not registered. But the children of a Bhutanese refugee man and Nepalese woman will get rations.”50 Another administrator confirmed this policy: “If an outside [Nepalese] woman is brought into the camps, the children will be registered, but there is no rule like that for outside men. This is the rule of Nepal under an understanding with UNHCR: inheritance is only through the father, not the mother.”51

Camp administrators base registration procedures on Nepalese law, which discriminates against women by denying them the ability to transfer citizenship to their children. Section 9 of the constitution of Nepal states that a child “whose father is a citizen of Nepal at the birth of the child shall be a citizen of Nepal by descent” and that “[e]very child who is found within the Kingdom of Nepal and the whereabouts of whose parents are not known shall, until the father of the child is traced, be deemed to be a citizen of Nepal by descent.”52 Any child with a Nepalese father and a non-Nepalese mother automatically acquires Nepalese citizenship, but this is not the case for a child with a Nepalese mother and non-Nepalese father. Correspondingly, any child with a registered Bhutanese refugee father may be registered in the camps, but camp policy denies registration to children with a registered Bhutanese refugee mother and Nepalese father.

Non-Registration of Ration Cards in Women’s Names

Under the current registration and ration card system, Bhutanese refugee women are often unable to obtain ration cards in their own names. Although there are isolated cases of household cards being issued to women, married women are generally listed under their husband’s household card. Adult women who are single, divorced, or widowed are often “absorbed” into their father or brother’s household card. This practice denies women independent and equal access to their full aid entitlements and if they are in abusive relationships, may jeopardize their safety. Human Rights Watch interviewed one twenty-one-year-old woman, Tara D., who was beaten repeatedly by her husband to the point where she was hospitalized twice. She eventually tried to commit suicide. She said:

Now I am living separately. But my ration is still with my parents-in-law. They say bad things [insults] but I do it my way. I get my [food] rations, but not other benefits, like clothes. I have talked about it in the office, but no one replied. I asked again, I was called, and I asked for a separation. They said this is new for us, we need to discuss it more. That was three months ago. The subsector head supports me. He gives my husband’s share to me when my husband is away. The subsector head found a place for me to build a new hut. I had a goat and I sold it to buy materials for a new hut. I have not been given anything. I borrowed money from others and have not been able to pay it back yet. When it rains, the whole place gets drenched.

I think that everything should be settled, and my in-laws should not say these things to me. The ration should be separate. I should have all materials for my hut, especially as the rainy season is coming. UNHCR came to see me. It has been one month. They asked about the suicide, wrote it down, and left. I want a separate ration card because all of the benefits go to my husband’s family only—like the utensils for filling water and the hut.53

Several women told Human Rights Watch they had attempted to obtain a separate ration card but were denied their request. The government of Nepal will issue a separate ration card to a woman only if she obtains a legal divorce.54 Many women preferred to separate from their husbands without filing for divorce because the change in status could endanger their custody of their children and their property rights on return to Bhutan. Women who remarry may lose custody of their children under Nepalese law.55

Most women said they made ad hoc arrangements with their subsector head to collect their food rations separately from their estranged husband. However, they had problems accessing rations meant to be shared within one household, such as stoves, blankets, and soap. Additionally, they were unable to obtain separate housing, leaving them to find refuge with other family members in overcrowded huts or to partition off the original hut and live in one small corner.

Other refugee crises have demonstrated that having registration and ration distribution systems organized around male household heads can lead to situations in which men squander the household’s rations on alcohol and gambling or use it as leverage to keep women and children in abusive relationships.56 This system also puts refugee women at the mercy of an often male-dominated camp management. Recognizing such potential for abuse, a series of UNHCR protection guidelines over the past decade have recommended issuing refugee women their own registration documents and individual access to humanitarian aid.57

The 2003 Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Guidelines for Prevention and Response emphasize as a fundamental principle that:

Equal access to and control of material resources and assistance benefits and women’s equal participation in decision-making processes should be reflected in all programmes, whether explicitly targeting sexual and gender-based violence or responding to the emergency, recovery or development needs of the population.58

The guidelines emphasize that an important method for ensuring equal access to aid and protection is to “[p]rovide registration cards to all adult refugees (male and female).”59 However, an informal review conducted by UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP) in early 2003 concluded that the cost of redesigning the registration system in Nepal would not justify the benefits.60

The current registration policies fail women by preventing them from obtaining an independent ration card even if they separate from an abusive husband. Upon the request of Tara D., whose situation is described above, a researcher from Human Rights Watch raised her case with a camp-level RCU administrator. He replied, “I think this case is quite satisfactorily settled. She’s receiving special protection from the subsector head. If she has complaints, then she doesn’t know who to go to. She should go to LWF [The Lutheran World Federation] for additional housing materials.” The administrator ignored the fact that Tara D. could not request additional materials without a separate ration card and that she faced difficulties with other types of rations as well. He further explained, “A ration card cannot be separated. [If a woman wants to live separately] [t]hey can set up a partition in the hut. Only if the woman takes another husband can the ration card be changed. The RCU changes it, UNHCR has to give a separate hut, and LWF gives separate materials.”61

Even when the camp management committee and the RCU forwarded cases to UNHCR, most women we interviewed were still not able to obtain a separate ration card because of the camp registration policies. Geeta M. reported:

I was in class eight when we got married. I had a child, and my husband started mistreating me. He had an affair with another girl. I was beaten several times. Sometimes I was beaten so badly I bled. I told the sector head. My husband took a second wife. I didn’t agree, but I had lots of pressure from the neighbors so I agreed. He said, “if you don’t allow me to take a second wife, then the ration card is in my name, and I’ll take everything.” There was a fight involving my brothers, and I was taken to the police. The case couldn’t be decided by the camp secretary and the counseling board, so it went to the RCU. Since it was a case of bigamy, it went to UNHCR.

I live separately with my child in an extended hut. My husband and his wife live with his parents. We’re all on the same ration card. UNHCR asked me if I wanted freedom and independence. I want the husband and wife to be booked [have criminal charges brought against them]. Under Nepali law—I want them to be punished under the law of bigamy. I have asked my husband for the health card and ration card and they don’t give. Two months ago I gave a request to have a separate ration card. There are two camp supervisors from the RCU. They don’t listen to me because they are friends with my husband, who used to be a sector head. I have not gotten approval to get a separate ration card. Instead, my sector head promises me that I can get my share.62

The household registration and ration card system discriminates against all women, and especially affects those in abusive relationships or in polygynous households. In the refugee camps, men often take second wives and effectively abandon the first wife and her children. In other cases, first or second wives choose to leave abusive marriages and seek independence from their husbands. Human Rights Watch interviewed fourteen Bhutanese refugee women in abusive relationships and in bigamous marriages who were unable to obtain separate ration cards. Although they had often severed all ties, a woman and her children would still be linked to her husband on the household card, reducing their ability to access their full share of rations. In most cases they collected their portion of food rations separately on distribution days, but had to improvise separate living arrangements.63 They could not obtain their own set of household goods like a stove, cooking utensils, and soap.

Twenty-five-year-old Ganga P. was brutally beaten by her husband, who threatened her with a knife. She sought help from her sector head and the counseling board, but was told to return to her husband. She told Human Rights Watch:

I am the second wife. We stayed together for two months. I was beaten up and requested to stay separately. My husband agreed. We have not had a conversation since. My ration card is still with him. I collect my own share [of food] and have no problems with rice. But there is a misunderstanding about soap. The policy is that we’re not allowed to get separate ration cards. I had asked the subsector head and sector head and was told it can’t be separated.64

The current registration and ration distribution system also affects children’s access to rations. If their parents are separated, children in the camps often live with their mother. Typically, these children, along with their mothers, access their food rations through ad hoc arrangements with the subsector head, but have less access to other types of household goods.

Children living with their fathers may also face difficulties obtaining their share of aid. Youth advocates from the Children’s Forum highlight abuse from fathers and stepmothers as one of the most pressing children’s problems in the camps. At times, the abuse takes the form of depriving children their full food rations. One refugee mother, Maya N., said she works as an agricultural laborer outside of the camps in order to earn extra money to buy food for her children, who live with their father and stepmother. She told Human Rights Watch:

My first husband took a Tamang girl as a second wife. Now he beats my four children. My children are treated badly by the second wife and are not given their share of food. My son says he doesn’t get food. I want him to shift to my new husband’s ration card. I cut rice in the village from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. I get Rs. 50 [U.S. $0.64].65 I have to work all day long in the heat, for the benefit of the children.66

Maya N. remarried and is now on the ration card of her second husband. He refuses to apply for Maya N.’s children to switch to their ration card. Because of the current camp registration policies, she is unable to obtain her own ration card and to ensure independently that her children receive their aid entitlements.

42 This report does not discuss the plight of non-registered women. In some cases, refugee women failed the refugee status determination interview at the screening post at Kakarbhitta on the India-Nepal border, possibly because of their unfamiliarity with and fear about the screening procedures. In other cases, they arrived after the screening post closed in January 2001 (screening resumed in September 2003). Some women from the local Nepalese community have also married into the camps. None of these women or their children are able to access aid packages, and it is unclear whether they will have a chance to accompany their families to Bhutan. Human Rights Watch interviewed several Nepalese women who had married into the camps, and who experienced psychological and physical abuse from their husband’s families because they were seen as burdens on the household’s resources.

43 CRC, art. 2(1).

44 CRC, art. 7. UNHCR guidelines on the protection of refugee children outline its responsibilities to prevent statelessness among refugee children and to protect stateless persons, in part by ensuring that the births of all refugee children are registered. UNHCR, Refugee Children: Guidelines for Protection and Care (Geneva: UNHCR, 1995), p. 104. ExCom Conclusion No. 47 (1987) urges States to “take appropriate measures to register the births of refugee children born in countries of asylum,” and ExCom Conclusion No. 85 (1998) affirms this guideline, drawing particular attention to “children of refugees and asylum-seekers born in asylum countries who could be stateless unless appropriate legislation and registration procedures are in place and are followed.”

45 Chandragadhi is the town where the district offices of the RCU and police are headquartered in Jhapa district.

46 Human Rights Watch interview with Rita D., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 28, 2003.

47 Human Rights Watch interview with Ratna G., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, April 3, 2003.

48 The JVT does not set camp registration or ration distribution policies. The reason for the RCU administrator’s reference to the JVT is unclear, but he gave Maya S. incorrect information about how to pursue registration for her children and eventually rejected her application.

49 Human Rights Watch interview with Maya S., Khudanabari camp, Nepal, March 24, 2003.

50 Human Rights Watch interview with camp-level RCU administrator, Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 27, 2003.

51 Human Rights Watch interview with camp-level RCU administrator, Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, April 1, 2003. In an e-mail message to Human Rights Watch, a protection officer with the UNHCR Sub-Office in Damak said that UNHCR does not agree with the current policy. E-mail message from Douglass Cubie, UNV associate protection officer, UNHCR Sub-Office, Damak, Nepal to Human Rights Watch, September 1, 2003.

52 Nepal Const, arts. 9(1) and 9(2).

53 Human Rights Watch interview with Tara D., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, April 1, 2003.

54 This practice partly stems from concerns of “double registration” in which members of one household apply for separate ration cards and then pool the rations, effectively doubling their aid package. However, this policy fails to acknowledge the legal and social barriers that women must consider before filing for divorce. This policy is also discriminatory against women because men are listed as the household heads on the ration cards and it is generally women who must find alternative housing and aid if they separate.

55 Nepal Country Code, No. 3(2) of the Chapter on Husband and Wife.

56 See Human Rights Watch, Seeking Protection: Addressing Sexual and Domestic Violence in Tanzania’s Refugee Camps (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2000), p. 33.

57 UNHCR, Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women (Geneva: UNHCR, 1991); UNHCR, Sexual Violence Against Refugees (Geneva: UNHCR, 1995); and UNHCR Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Against Refugees, Returnees, and Internally Displaced Persons: Guidelines for Prevention and Response (Geneva: UNHCR, 2003).

58 UNHCR, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, p. 25.

59 UNHCR, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, p. 51. ExCom Conclusion No. 64 (1990) calls upon States to “[i]ssue individual identification and/or registration documents to all refugee women; [and] provide all refugee women and girls with effective and equitable access to basic services—.”

60 Human Rights Watch interview with Courtney Mitchell, programme officer, World Food Programme, Kathmandu, Nepal, March 18, 2003.

61 Human Rights Watch interview with camp-level RCU administrator, Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, April 1, 2003.

62 Human Rights Watch interview with Geeta M., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 26, 2003.

63 Most women moved into other relatives’ huts, added a partition to a relatives’ hut, or built a separate dwelling from materials they independently purchased.

64 Human Rights Watch interview with Ganga P., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 26, 2003.

65 Throughout this report, the exchange rate used is 78 Nepalese Rupees to the U.S. dollar, the rate on July 31, 2003.

66 Human Rights Watch interview with Maya N., Bhutanese refugee camps, Nepal, March 26, 2003.

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September 2003