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A field trip where I was laughed at

“A vast majority of the people do not have access to justice in Bangladesh”. This sentence in one form or the other is not only part of all the project documents UNDP is currently supporting in the justice sector but many speeches, reports, articles etc open or end with this sentence. This simple sentence evades the complex contexts and situations the country faces. Working in the justice sector for a year now, I thought I understood what this simple sentence meant until a field trip to Rangpur last week opened my eyes, the objective of which was to provide input into the new women’s access to justice programme. 

In many senses, justice begins with injustice; knowing ones rights have been violated and an injustice committed. The constitution of Bangladesh enshrines equality before the law which means one has a right to redress no matter one’s social, religious, economic or cultural background; no matter if one is poor, a woman, a child, a hijra, a hindu, an ahmediyan, a Chakma, or without a limb. But injustice begins even before that, it begins with defining injustice in a society which is gnarled with social norms, values, principles and culture, some noble and some ignoble. 

In the 2 focus group discussions I had with approximately 50 rural women in Rangpur last week, I started off by mentioning my name and that I was married, something I knew most women would be able to relate to. I eased into the questions with when they got married and what it was like being married at such a young age. Except for 1, all the women were married by the age of 13/14. For almost all the women present (aged between 13-60) marrying off a daughter at the age of 13 was not considered wrong or a violation of the child’s right even though each one of them knew the legal age for marriage in Bangladesh was 18 (for women).

The flow of my conversation automatically led to the real purpose of my visit, i.e. to know their level of awareness about the formal justice sector and the barriers they faced in accessing justice etc. In my head I had it divided up by civil cases and criminal cases so the first question I asked was whom they went to when they felt an injustice had been done. Unequivocally they mentioned the union parishad chairman. The reason for him being the first point of contact was his easy accessibility, his known face, his power and influence etc. I then asked whether they would go to the police and even before I could finish my sentence they burst out laughing with the expression that I was crazy. I felt embarrassed by their laughter but still probed on and they said that they were too poor to be able to afford police services. 

When I told them that there were no charges to go to the police, to open a general diary or to lodge an FIR (first incident report) they again broke into ripples of laughter, ridiculing me. From the whole lot only two women had ever interacted with the police and in one case the police came to the scene but left, knowing the perpetrator to be an influential man in that community while in the second case the police refused to lodge a GD unless fees were paid which that poor woman could not afford. Those realties of two people from the community created the perception in that community that all policemen were corrupt even though these incidents had occurred at least 3 to 4 years ago. 

When I asked about the district court there were such blank looks on their faces that I had to describe the colour and architecture of this building barely 15 kms from the union where we were having this discussion. Not a single person had accessed the courts and only one woman spoke about a land case that had been going on for 35 years rendering both parties completely destitute. I dared still and ask about the government legal aid system and as expected none had heard about it. This goes in line with UNDPs recent study through the Justice Sector Facility project where it was found that 97% of the population did not know about the district legal aid office. 

Thus for these people the only means of getting justice were through the informal shalish system or arbitration by the union parishad chairman. While they knew about the police their experience and perception of the police made it the last port of call, poverty and lack of power being the root causes. 

From there we went to meet the union parishad chairman - an enlightened man was knowing much about both formal and informal justice systems. He cited that while there were quite a few referral of cases from the district court to the village court, there were not as many referrals from the village courts to the district courts. He knew perfectly well what the government legal aid was and said he had helped at least one woman access it this year. He also thought it was a great idea to use the union digital centres (piloted by UNDP supported A2i project and then rolled out by the government to all unions of the country) as a hub for awareness raising on government legal aid. 

The next and last step was to meet the focal point for development projects in the district. The official was a deputy secretary in rank and he spoke extensively about access to justice, the formal system and informal system, poverty and women’s economic empowerment etc. These discussions led to talks about the recently established women’s development forum (a pilot activity started by UNDPs UPGP and then rolled out to all upazillas of the country by the government) and how these forums could play a pivotal role in enhancing women’s legal empowerment.  

Overall, a very insightful field visit. I realized that I was proud to be part of the United Nations Development Programme, maintaining an integrated approach to development and dealing not only at the institutional level but also directly with the people. Yes, a vast majority of the people in this country cannot access justice but UNDP continues to work for these people with the Government of Bangladesh unpacking the smallest details but reaching up to the highest policy level bodies of the count.

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