Caring about Statelessness: Unpacking the “End Statelessness" Campaigns through a Feminist Ethics of Care

Deirdre Brennan

May 2021

In this blog, Deirdre Brennan, PhD candidate at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness at the University of Melbourne, argues for an examination of the pervasive social function of care amongst people affected by statelessness. She suggests that the application of an ethics of care lens will not only tell us about the function of relationships, joy, suffering and survival amongst stateless people, but importantly it may deepen our understanding of the web of (unseen and unpaid) labour involved in campaigning against statelessness.

What might an ethics of care – a theory grounded in morality, philosophy, and feminism – contribute to our understanding of statelessness? In this blog, I provide a brief introduction to the ethics of care and, drawing on examples of activism against gender discriminatory nationality laws in Nepal, I suggest the need to conceptualise citizenship-rights activism as care work. In doing so I ask: who is expected to carry out campaign work and to what extent, or when, is that work valued? And I suggest there is much to be gained from understanding the pervasive social function of care, particularly how it manifests in the lives, activities and energy of activists involved in campaigns against statelessness, in Nepal, or elsewhere.

The emergence of care as a feminist ethical theory is largely attributed to the work of Carol Gilligan in ‘A Different Voice’, in 1982. Gilligan conceives of the ethic of care as decision-making based on responsibilities and relationships, and contextual thinking: it is a morality ‘concerned with the activity of care’. Her empirical research challenged dominant moral theories in developmental psychology that had implicitly adopted ‘the male life as the norm’ and thus ranked independence, abstract reason, and justice as pinnacles of development. Failure to meet these goals during adolescence – to become what was considered an independent and rational individual – meant women’s development was seen as stunted. Gilligan asserted that the problem was not in women’s development but rather with the theories themselves which ignored other moral orientations, specifically the perspectives of care and relationships. The ethics of care was thus developed as an alternative to the overwhelming dominance that the concept of justice had been granted in the history of moral theory.

While some of the earlier scholarship has been critiqued for its gender essentialising conclusions, the ethics of care has grown in the decades since Gilligan’s seminal work. The ethics of care has not only been applied to the analysis of private family life, but it is now understood to be relevant to political life, the organisation of society, international relations, and the health-care sector especially. One of the key concerns raised by feminist scholars in this field is that caring activities are undervalued, un(der)paid and ‘disproportionately occupied by the relatively powerless in society’. It is on this point in particular, on the valuation of care, that I see scope for the application of an ethic of care to statelessness. Who, or what organisations, are visible, valued, and considered as leading contributors in campaigns to end statelessness?

Overwhelmingly, in the international statelessness sector, the point of departure for statelessness advocacy and research is a human rights-based approach. Taking the #iBelong campaign as an example, action nine of the ten-point Global Action Plan to End Statelessness by 2024 is ‘Accede to the UN Statelessness Conventions’. While the value of Action Nine is not inflated or prioritised over the other actions in the Global Plan, progress on accessions has continued to be a key indicator of the success of the overall campaign thus re-emphasising the value placed on a justice/rights based approach to “end statelessness”. My argument is that measuring accessions to statelessness conventions, or focusing on United Nations’ committee recommendations that condemn state practices, does not represent or value the web of energy, labour, emotion, and care that buttresses the movement against statelessness-at-large and in the every-day.

I suggest conceptualising citizenship-equality activism as care work in order to understand the work of stateless activists as devalued and uncompensated labour in the wider “end statelessness” campaigns. In addition to public protests or social media activism, which are by their very nature acts of care (caring that an issue is resolved or a policy reformed), there are other less visible, but equally all-encompassing, components of activism that can be framed as care. Drawing on research I’ve conducted in Nepal, some examples of such care work include: supportive phone-calls between people affected by statelessness; acts of self-care, such as painting or cooking, in order to sustain advocacy momentum and; accompanying a friend to report severe incidents of online abuse following Twitter activism. What is at stake is that through a continued dominance of a justice-centric approach, in the #iBelong campaign for example, these acts of care in every-day activism are rendered invisible (much like in other contexts). I’m not suggesting here that an ethic of justice is replaced by an ethic of care – justice is so clearly owed to stateless people – but there is room for both approaches to be combined. The aim therefore is that care work conducted by stateless activists is recognised, valued and sustainably resourced alongside a diplomatic (or top-down) focus in the statelessness sector, a sector which has seen increased NGO-ization/professionalization in recent years. The tension this creates, however, is how to ensure activism and care are recognised as valuable by international actors, in ways that do not replicate neo-imperialist models or co-option of grass-roots labour. For example, Haqqi Bahram’s blog, elsewhere in this series, grapples with the dangers of platforming one or two stateless activists.

With all that said, I hesitate to paint a romantic picture of the contribution an ethic of care can make to statelessness studies; there are of course pitfalls in the theory. Despite challenging the supposed universality of the principles of justice, the ethics of care has itself been framed in universal terms. Care theory is rooted in white, middle-class, western feminist scholarship and based on Christian virtues, and as such, normative assumptions underlie the framing of care as something that is inherently good, innocent, or virtuous. This idealisation or romanticisation of care ignores that there is a plurality to care; that with care, comes suffering. For example, when the Nepali state mobilises an “anti-foreigner” rhetoric to justify gender discriminatory citizenship laws and instrumentalises fear, couldn’t this be interpreted as an expression of care for its citizens? In seeking out the value of care to the “end statelessness” campaigns, it is important to remain open to the ‘conflict-laden, intense, gritty, and fleshy character’ of care and relationships in the lives of stateless people, and within the structures and institutions where they reside. To address the pitfalls of the normative origins of the ethics of care it is necessary to challenge one’s own positionality and to situate an examination of care in the located practices of stateless people and activists, starting with asking people how they define care. Doing so will also push the parameters of the theory and build the theory back up for more inclusive use in the future.

The question that still remains is whether, and if so how, care should be appreciated as a strategy in the wider “end statelessness” campaigns? Because after all, ‘recognition alone does not improve the status of caring’.

The CSS Blog serves as a space for short reflective pieces by individuals working on statelessness from a critical perspective. Click here to learn more about the CSS project or here to read about how to contribute to the blog.