February 20th was the World day of Social justice. To celebrate, BRAC decided to highlight the outstanding work of our Human Rights and Legal Aid Services programme (HRLS) in protecting and promoting the human rights of the poor and marginalised in Bangladesh.
Social Justice is an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations. We uphold the principles of social justice when we promote gender equality or the rights of indigenous peoples and migrants. We advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development states that sustainable development cannot be realized without peace and security and encourages member States to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies that provide equal access to justice and that are based on respect for human rights. BRAC has been upholding these principles in Bangladesh for over 30 years through our Human Rights and Legal Aid Services programme. In 2014 the programme won the Global Justice Innovation Award 2014 in the ‘Successful Innovations’ category from The Hague institute for the Internationalisation of Justice.
The HRLS Team protects and promotes the human rights of vulnerable people and people living in poverty through legal empowerment. We promote rule of law at national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all. We are doing this by raising awareness about human rights and the laws and practices that aim to protect everyone. In order to ensure equal access to justice for all, we provide legal aid to people otherwise unable to afford legal representation, mediate alternative dispute resolutions in our 400-plus legal aid clinics, and in the cases where that does not work, we support our clients in navigating the court system. Legal aid is central in providing access to justice by ensuring equality before the law, the right to counsel and the right to a fair trial. It performs a crucial role in providing fair and equal access to justice for those most at risk of being excluded from legal systems.
Our programme’s three main components are legal aid, legal awareness, and community mobilisation. We also run a number of specialised projects, based on property rights, juvenile justice, prison overcrowding and safety in the workplace.
Here are three stories that illustrate how our programme brings social justice to vulnerable people in Bangladesh.
Legal aid during divorce
In February 2014, a 19-year-old woman named, Mukhti Khatun, was raped. Mukhti’s father tried to file a case under the Women and Children Repression Act but because of pressure from local elites, he was forced to comply with the decision of an illegal mediation that ordered Mukhti to be married off to her rapist. Her dower, the sum of money set at the time of her marriage, was 300,000 BDT (£3,000). After the marriage, Mukhti’s husband started physically abusing her for dowry and demanded she collect 1 Million BDT (£10,000) from her poor father. Her husband’s ill-treatment towards her increased day by day. Mukhti’s father tried to seek help from the local elites for this daughter, but no one paid heed to his pleas.
Our staff learned about Mukhti’s case when they went to follow up on the progress of a course that was happening in the area. BRAC HRLS staff advised Mukhti to file a complaint with our local legal aid clinic. A mediation was arranged, and Mukhti was able to recover 150,000 BDT (£1,500) of the money she had been forced to pay as dower and maintenance from her abusive husband.
Mukhti is now settled. She bought two cows with the money she received and is now rearing cattle for sale in the market.
Legal Education and Awareness: Barefoot lawyers stepping into local government
Bilkis, is a 42-year-old woman, that was born into a rural, underprivileged family. Over 25 years ago, she was unable to complete her education and, at the tender age of 15, was married to a poor farmer.
Bilkis tried to make a living by raising cattle and after struggling for many years with limited success, she enrolled herself in a HRLS course to become a “barefoot lawyer” along with other local women. Barefoot lawyers are people from poor communities themselves, who have trained in the basics of legal empowerment for their neighbours. They then lead classes in legal education for others in the communities.
After her training, Bilkis walked 5-7 kilometres at a time to provide classes to women in neighbouring villages. The money she earned as a barefoot lawyer was invested into a small chicken farm. Bilkis was able to turn her life around by selling eggs and delivering legal awareness classes.
With her combined new income sources, she ensured two of her children made it to school. They are now both enrolled in 9th grade. As a barefoot lawyer engaged in day-to-day community building and legal empowerment activities, Bilkis gained local recognition and in 2016, she was elected as a local government member – a still rare achievement for women in the rural villages of Bangladesh. Now serving her community both as an official leader and a barefoot lawyer, Bilkis is seen as a role model for many women.
Ratna is from a village close to the western Bangladeshi border with India. She lost her father in 2002. She was told that she will not inherit her father’s property while her grandfather was still alive. Ratna was confused; her cousins were cultivating their father’s land at the same time, but she and her sister were being deprived of the same rights.
Ratna shared her concerns with a BRAC trained Land Entrepreneur, who are part of BRAC’s Property Rights Initiative, a programme funded by the Omidyar Network. The Land Entrepreneur sent her to attend a BRAC class. The class cleared a lot of the misconceptions about rights and inheritance that Ratna had been told throughout her whole life. She realised that she and her sister were the heirs of their father’s property, and thus entitled to inherit following his demise.
With her dream of getting her father’s property back, Ratna came to her uncles and claimed for her property. She was bitterly disappointed when she found her father’s property was just about to be sold. Ratna stated her claim on the property to her uncles and requested the buyers not to buy it, telling them that she would approach BRAC if she did not get her property. With the new found knowledge, Ratna quickly reached a settlement with her uncles regarding her and her sister’s inheritance.
Ratna has now taken a lease of 23 decimals of land near her home. She is cultivating paddy and mustard and is making a steady monthly income of around 15,000 BDT (£150).