Sisters Doin' It for Themselves

The women of the Berra Women’s Community Policing Forum. Photo - UNDPThe women of the Berra Women’s Community Policing Forum. Photo - UNDP

The challenges in increasing access to justice for women in Bangladesh can seem daunting. In all spheres of contemporary Bangladeshi life, women still face discrimination, exclusion, and injustice and have negligible influence in decision-making processes. Their inferior status can be traced to the patriarchal values entrenched in society, which keep women subjugated, assigns them a subordinate and dependent role, and, prevents them from accessing power and resources. Men hold the power and resources within families and control most of the property and family income. Women are still often considered as men’s property, with their sexual activity, income and labour being systematically controlled by the men in their family. Although women are increasingly joining the workforce (particularly in areas such as garment production), social expectations of women still pivot around child rearing and household management. Widespread violence against women also contributes to their social vulnerability and prevents them from fully participating in society; it has been reported that 87 per cent of currently married women have experienced physical violence by their current husband and more than 40 per cent of women on average indicated that they had first forced sex at age 14 and below by non-partners. 

In spite of these alarming statistics, many cases of violence against women either go unreported or do not make it to court. There is a clear need for the legal empowerment of women in Bangladesh, which the UNDP’s new Access to Justice for Women Initiation Plan (IP) is seeking to achieve. Having worked to support the formulation of this programme for almost a year now, it has at times been difficult to maintain confidence in the ability of any programme to have a meaningful impact on the lives of ordinary women in Bangladesh. A field trip to Rangpur earlier in the year had bought home the true enormity of the gulf between the various justice and security institutions that the UNDP supports to improve relevant systems and processes and ultimately increase their accessibility, and the lives of ordinary poor women for whom such services seemed like distant alien structures of no real applicability to their lives. Women at a Rangpur Village Courtyard session organised by the Activating Village Courts project laughed when asked if they would go to the police if they felt they had suffered a wrong. Some unfortunate experiences with corruption had lead to the universal (mis)impression within the community that there are prohibitive fees involved in lodging cases with police. In short the women were convinced they were all far too poor to afford police services and expressed disbelief when advised that such services were in fact free of charge. There seemed little point in inquiring further about the awareness of these women in relation to legal aid services, which were established by the government to facilitate access to justice for ordinary Bangladeshis. Recent UNDP Access to Justice perception data discloses that 97% of Bangladeshis have never heard of government legal aid committees or offices. The women’s knowledge of court services was so minimal that the district court, located a mere 15km away from the union where they lived, had to be described via references to the colour and architecture of the building. It was clear that relevant legal aid services had clearly not yet succeeded in bridging the gap between the citizenry and courts. 

Coming face-to-face with such fundamental shortfalls in the basic legal knowledge and awareness necessary to achieve any modicum of legal empowerment was disheartening. The barriers to achieving access to justice for poor and disadvantaged Bangladeshi women seemed insurmountable. Against this backdrop, expectations were low during a recent field trip to Pabna to visit the Women's Community Policing Forum in Berra. Community Policing Forums (CPF) were established with support from the UNDP’s Police Reform Project (PRP) to improve relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve, as well as support those communities to address local problems with local solutions. These community consultation mechanisms have been largely successful in enhancing positive interactions between police and local communities, and increasing community demand for accountable police services. The Bangladesh Police have taken up the initiative which has now been rolled out to encompass an estimated 52,000 CPFs nationwide.

The ability for such forums to have impact when constituted by women only, in an otherwise male-dominated society, was nonetheless doubted. However the women of the Berra Women’s CPF made abundantly clear that womanhood was no barrier for them. They explained that although the initiative was started by Police, it is now very much owned by them. They voluntarily meet twice a month to discuss local safety matters and decide on any necessary action. They record all such decisions and actions in a register provided to them Police who remain available to support them. However the women were adamant that they usually acted without any support. This seemed remarkable given that they were largely poor and uneducated, and did not occupy any politically powerful or elite positions within the community. They claimed though to find strength in numbers and were able to have an impact by acting as a collective. They took pride in sharing their recent actions to stop a child marriage within the community which they achieved via negotiation, leveraging upon their position as being legally well-informed about such matters. Indeed it was matter many had a personal interest in, having been married off as children themselves. It was almost the most brilliant example of Alternative Dispute Resolution (which is used to divert cases capable of being resolved out-of-court away from the formal justice system) I had seen, except the legal wrong had not yet occurred. The women had addressed this potential (and very serious) crime violation, not through armed confrontations or the like but rather through discussion. The crime was not stopped because police equipped these women with batons or guns or any police powers, rather they equipped them with the necessary information and knowledge to empower them to stand up for their rights and indeed the rights of others in their community to be free from crime. Looking around at the smiling faces of these women and listening to their strong voices I realised that women’s legal empowerment in Bangladesh was not only possible, I was witnessing a clear pathway to achieve it; contrary to the women at the Village Courtyard in Rangpur who had never even heard of the District Court let alone the Legal Aid Office that sits within it, the women of the Berra Women’s CPF were able to recite the telephone number for the local District Legal Office by heart!

The CPF model has been the subject of much scrutiny and debate about the real benefit of these platforms but my visit to the Berra Women’s CPF demonstrated their value beyond any shadow of a doubt: that is legal empowerment for some of the most previously disempowered people in the world. It is something very difficult to measure. How do you measure the impact of planting a seed of legal empowerment in a community? Is it less court cases? More court cases? Less crime? More safety? Power can always be misused but when talking about some of the most previously marginalised and powerless people in the world, these kind of concerns seem like semantics.

Blog post blog series Governance and peacebuilding Access to justice Asia & the Pacific Bangladesh UNDP

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