Nationality in Malawi is determined by the 1966 Citizenship Act, as amended most recently in 2019 to permit dual citizenship for the first time. The 1994 Constitution provides for every child to have the right to a nationality, and that a person shall not be arbitrarily deprived or denied citizenship.

Men and women have equal rights to transmit citizenship to their children; but they do not have equal rights to transmit citizenship to a spouse. From 1966 until 1992, the Citizenship Act included a provision that citizenship based on descent was restricted to those who have at least one parent who was not only a citizen of Malawi but was also “a person of African race” — although those who were already citizens when the 1966 Act was adopted continued to be citizens after that date. The restriction to “African race” was repealed in 1992.

From independence in 1964 until an amendment to the 1966 Citizenship Act in 1971, Malawi provided for attribution of citizenship to all those born in Malawi (from 1966, restricted to those of “African race”). Since 1971, attribution of citizenship at birth is only on the basis of descent. The law provides no presumption of citizenship for children found in the territory of unknown parents or born in the territory who cannot acquire citizenship from a parent, creating risks of statelessness; however, it does provide for facilitated registration as a citizen for those with a particular connection to Malawi, including stateless persons, with some conditions.

In 2021, the Malawi Law Commission published a comprehensive review of the Malawi Citizenship Act. Among other recommendations, the Commission proposed that, in addition to acquisition based on descent, a child born in Malawi should be a citizen by birth if otherwise stateless, and should have the right to apply for citizenship if still resident at the age of ten, if one parent has a residence permit at the time of the application.

Birth registration has only been compulsory for all children born in Malawi since the adoption of the National Registration Act in 2010, which repealed and replaced the Births and Deaths Registration Act originally adopted in 1904. In 2012, a major initiative to improve birth registration was launched, and by 2015, birth registration had improved from rates reported to be below 10 percent to reach 67 percent of children under five (though only 17 percent held a certificate). The National Registration Act also introduced a national identity card for the first time, and a mass registration process was launched in 2017.

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