legal empowerment

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21 articles in category legal empowerment / Subscribe

In a short, but great, article on Legal Aid in Bangladesh, Ian Morrison, Director of the Bangladesh Legal Aid Reform Project, has provided a useful macro-level criticism of the legal aid system as it stands. He writes,

 It is far easier and more immediately rewarding to work with NGOs, who have mastered the discourse of access to justice that donors want to hear, who can produce results fairly quickly and who can provide a more holistic service approach than will ever be possible under government legal aid. Nevertheless, the value of this approach in the long term must be questioned. Despite huge budgets (relatively speaking), legal aid NGOs still do not provide coverage to more than about one third of the country, and not always then to the most needy.

Although NGOs are all about legal empowerment, rights-based approaches, and the other fashionable trends of modern access to justice, at the end of the day NGOs, no matter how good their work, are not politically accountable and are not inside the system. Legal aid from NGOs cannot be claimed as legal and constitutional right, and when and if donor attention is distracted (as it invariably is at some point), large service edifices will quickly crash. This has in fact happened more than once in Bangladesh. If the current struggle within Bangladesh to strengthen rule of law as a component of democratic practice is to succeed – and it is certainly not a sure thing – then access to justice must be pushed as a value of the legal system itself and government itself must accept its proper responsibility to ensure this.

 What an excellent point, and one we must consider when thinking not just about legal aid – but access to essential services that should be a human right. In Bangladesh, BRAC is frequently decried as a ‘parallel government’ due to its expansive programs – especially in health and education. Many other NGOs, worldwide, too, have to be wary of the impact their programs are having on the state.

NGOs should question: to what extent are they replacing the state and forming a ‘shadow’ state? Are civil society groups weakening the state’s resolve to provide high-quality services? How can NGOs instead collaborate with the government in service delivery? How can NGOs work to create demand amongst communities for basic human rights and service delivery from the government?

I don’t have answers to these questions – but I do believe that the current system is not necessarily sustainable, financially or otherwise, for the long run. What happens if funding runs out and an NGO closes? What if NGOs simply decide to change their programs based on funding restrictions? Can communities really demand better services from NGOs? Thus, I believe that for basic services, including legal aid, to become a basic human right and accountable to the people, governments themselves must begin taking on the responsibility for service delivery. Only then can communities have some sense of stability, continuity and accountability when it comes to high-quality social, legal, and health services.


I recently ran across a really great, short article published in the Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights (shoutout to my alma mater!). In “A Rights-Based Approach to Lawyering: Legal Empowerment as an Alternative to Legal Aid in Post-Disaster Haiti,” Meena Jagannath, Nicole Phillips & Jeena Shah write about the legal empowerment approach taken by the Institute of Justice and Democracy (IJDH) in Haiti and its local Haitian partner, Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI). An excerpt:

While traditional legal aid works within the confines of a lawyer-client relationship, legal empowerment includes victims of human rights violations as partners in advocacy for the enforcement of their rights. Thus, when BAI lawyers appear before judges to defend IDP camp communities from evictions, camp representatives are also present to actively participate in their defense.  The lawyers respond in Haitian Creole to the judge’s French to ensure that the camp representatives understand the arguments being made on their behalf.  During legal trainings, the lawyers encourage entire camp communities to peacefully demonstrate in front of the courthouse at the time of an IDP camp’s eviction hearing to draw the public’s attention to their plight and to pressure judges to make fair and just decisions that consider the human rights of homeless earthquake survivors.  Through active participation in their cases, IDP communities understand how their rights may be enforced, and thus are motivated and better able to continue to advocate for systemic change.  At the same time, their participation helps their cases advance through the court system by sensitizing Haiti’s primary rights’ enforcement mechanisms—the judiciary—to human rights considerations.

It’s a great (and quick!) read that examines BAI’s unique approach combining legal action and litigation with grassroots mobilization and organizing to address housing rights violations (especially, evictions) and sexual assault against women in post-earthquake Haiti. I am particularly excited to see more writing on legal empowerment approaches at the grassroots level — much needed, with the possibility of having great impact if harnessed well!


I came to Dhaka to study and write about the exciting movement towards legal empowerment, and I have not been disappointed.

Last week, in Faridpur, I got a taste of what grassroots legal services work looks like. I had the opportunity to interview lawyers, legal aid clinic managers, ‘barefoot lawyers’ and clients themselves about BRAC’s legal aid services, and I came away inspired and renewed by the hope for what can be possible.

Human Rights and Legal Education Class, led by a shebika ‘barefoot lawyer’

Certainly, things were not perfect. Far from it: challenges abounded for women as they battled social stigma, domestic violence, harassment, and poverty while attempting to move on with their lives. The majority of clients at BRAC’s legal aid clinic are victims of child marriage. I heard the same refrains over and over again: a girl reaches puberty, is married off around age 13, and is a divorcee by 18. Indeed, Bangladesh has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world – at almost 66%. Worst of all, 76% of teenage married girls reported experiencing domestic violence. Marrying at such a young age is also correlated with poorer health outcomes, as childbirth can be more difficult for girls who have barely hit puberty. As I spoke to these young girls, I was simultaneously heartbroken at the abuse they have experienced and the childhood they were robbed of, while also being moved by their courage – the courage to laugh loudly and smile at the world despite their circumstances. The ability to retain hope.

Parents married off their children at such a young age for several reasons. One was, ironically, supply and demand. The more children were married off, the greater the demand became among bridegrooms for younger brides. For that reason, the older the bride, the higher the dowry families have to pay. For economic reasons – many parents simply cannot afford to marry their daughters off after they reach the age of 18. The cost would be astronomical. Another significant reason is security: many families are afraid of leaving young daughters alone at home, even for a few hours. Stories of rape and murder are pervasive, and families become fearful, insisting their daughters need protectors. Besides, they are worried their daughters will run off and have “love affairs,” bringing shame to the entire family. So, child marriage is seen as the best option.

Thankfully, there are some solutions. BRAC has worked with families through its human rights and legal aid program. The program employs almost 6,000 shebikas, trained ‘barefoot lawyers’ who teach legal literacy classes across the country. The class covers a curriculum focused on family, land, inheritance, constitutional and criminal laws. Besides this, shebikas are leaders in their communities and constantly monitor the villages for news of human rights violations. If they hear about serious issues such as domestic violence or rape, they immediately intervene and bring the matter to the attention of BRAC’s legal aid clinics. The legal aid clinics – of which there are 517 in the country – can then arrange a mediation session (called shalish) or take the matter to court.

In cases of child marriage, shebikas themselves frequently speak with parents, outlining that the practice is against the law and there could be consequences. They also mention issues that their children might face including domestic violence, health problems, and even divorce. BRAC also works with local kazis (who do marriage registrations), making them more reluctant to agree to register child marriages. And sometimes, it works: especially because shebikas are seen not as outsiders providing aid but as friends, neighbors and community leaders who are from the same communities they serve. They have the cultural context and they know the right arguments to use in speaking with families.

In cases of domestic violence, too, shebikas have been able to bring clients to the legal aid office and assist in organizing shalish between husband and wife. Some contend that domestic violence should not be resolved through mediation and should be directly taken to the criminal justice system. After all, there are serious imbalances of power in such relationships. But after speaking with many women here, I have realized that mediation can play a role – but only with a well trained mediator who is able to truly support the woman and begin addressing those power imbalances. Going to the criminal justice system is not so feasible in Bangladesh —  nor do many women want that. Women usually want to continue their marriage (due to societal pressure) but want violence to end. Those who do want a divorce can also get assistance from BRAC in securing their dower and maintenance amounts, which can help them to begin picking up the pieces and moving on. With regards to addressing women’s desires and arriving at a more rapid solution within the community, shalish can prove to be a viable option. Going to court and threatening litigation is a much more ‘western’ concept, I have realized, and people in other parts of the world prefer to solve disputes through other avenues. Here, restorative and community-based justice is favored over punitive, retributive measures through the formal system. Shalish is not perfect, but it is one step that may help alleviate the suffering of rural women. And of course, when mediation does not work, it is certainly possible to go to the formal system for enforcement. Much more is needed – but this is a beginning.

In my opinion, we need to revolutionize this model of grassroots justice workers. Community health workers are quickly becoming a cornerstone of global health programs worldwide; why not do the same for community legal outreach workers? Pairing community paralegals with legal aid offices can prove to be an effective way of beginning to address the ‘justice gap’ we see, and particularly, for protecting women’s rights across the world.


Asalaam Alaikum from colorful and crowded Dhaka, Bangladesh! I’m here working with BRAC’s Human Rights and Legal Services (HRLS) Department pursuing a dream opportunity of spending time in Bangladesh and seeing many of my theoretical ideas about legal aid and access to justice in South Asia in action on the ground. Before I embark on my journey, I wanted to share some thoughts and reflections:

Why Bangladesh? Well, primarily because of BRAC, an NGO I have long admired as an inspiring combination of large-scale development efforts combined with grassroots organizing and mobilization. Founded in 1972, BRAC is the largest antipoverty group in the world, with 110,000 paid employees and a $495 million annual budget. Astonishingly, they have managed to become more than 70% self-financed (with only 20-30% of their budget received from donors), which allows them to be more accountable to the people they serve rather than the donors who fund them. Moreover, all the reports I have read about have shown a great deal of self-awareness: BRAC is not afraid to be relentlessly self-critical and to admit failure and complexity, a sure-fire marker of successful NGOs. In fact, I have not read a single rosy report; each report painstakingly documents shortcomings and recommendations for BRAC’s staff.

BRAC is also holistic in its approach to development, realizing that no one approach is a silver bullet and that in order to help lift people out of poverty, a range of programs and services must be combined to cater to all aspects of an individual’s needs. To that end, BRAC has programs in health, education, microfinance, legal, sanitation, grassroots mobilization, building of social enterprises and job creation, and so much more. What I have already seen is how ubiquitous BRAC is across Bangladesh: there is BRAC Bank that you see everywhere; Aarong, a chic retail brand for textiles and clothes; and so many Bangladeshi women and men who have worked with BRAC in some capacity over the years. BRAC’s ‘integrated’ approach has worked miracles in this country and affected the lives of literally, thousands.

Furthermore, BRAC has the largest NGO-led legal aid programme in the world, and the main reason I am here – to learn about legal empowerment in practice. BRAC has 9,000 ‘barefoot lawyers’ or shebikas who are on the frontline of providing human rights and legal education across Bangladesh.  BRAC provides legal aid through its 530 legal clinics in 61 districts, as well as alternate dispute resolution services. The service centers are ‘one stop’ shops which provide holistic support services to clients who seek justice.

BRAC's Legal Services Program (Credit: BRAC)

Besides BRAC, Bangladesh is a fantastic place to study the impact of legal empowerment and access to justice programs due to the large numbers of NGOs working in the country, as well as the unique confluence of issues related to women’s rights and Islam in the country. Bangladesh is very different from the places I’ve previously studied and focused on, primarily post-conflict or conflict-areas, but I am keen to gain an understanding of development in times of peace, and Bangladesh certainly will teach me a great deal.

What will I be doing? The plan is still in motion, and will hopefully be finalized once I start work in the next few days. But, I am hoping to do research on legal empowerment and produce a report documenting the impact of the HRLS program, as well as assist with some grantwriting.

So far… I’m staying with a host family and have just spent my first couple of days settling in, exploring the area slowly bit by bit, practicing bits and pieces of Bangla with the folks I’m meeting and trying to adjust to – well –  being here! Dhaka so far is overwhelming with its sights and sounds, and the most difficult piece by far is language. I’ve had great difficulty commuting on rickshaw or finding my destination without knowledge of Bangla beyond a few basic words and phrases, and I’ve already developed a new appreciation for immigrants all over the world. Many foreigners have remarked that they encounter people staring at them constantly. I, on the other hand, have not encountered that—but when I open my mouth, people realize I am clearly not Bangladeshi!

I’m thankful for this journey and experience, despite the costs involved and the homesickness I have felt upon landing in a foreign land with few friends or acquaintances. But, I’ve already had precious moments of connection – with the family I’m staying with; with the adorable little daughter of the maid who’s teaching me snippets of Bangla; with a random stranger who kindly guided me to my destination, walking with me for 10 minutes out of his way to help me out when I was lost and confused. People are kind, and I have to remember that despite the daily frustrations that bring me to tears, I have come here simply to learn and adapt – and this is just part of the process. Thank you for reading and joining me on this journey, and I hope to have more to share after (finally!) starting work tomorrow!


Things are changing — slowly but surely — in the world of legal empowerment and legal aid. In Sierra Leone, the Parliament recently enacted “one of the most progressive legal aid laws in Africa—with an innovative approach to providing access to justice for all that will reinforce the rule of law,” as noted by the Open Society Institute’s blog. This bill was approved with consensus by Sierra Leone’s house in less than one hour. The bill provides the “legal architecture for Sierra Leone’s first nationwide legal aid system.” As OSI’s Sonkita Conteh writes,

The bill provides for a mixed model of criminal and civil legal aid, from provision of legal information and mediation services through to representation in court, and supplied through a public/private partnership of government, private sector and civil society. By explicitly providing that paralegals are to be deployed in each of Sierra Leone’s 149 chiefdoms, the law ensures that a flexible and cost effective method of delivering justice services to large parts of the population will be available, in a country that doesn’t have a sufficient supply of qualified lawyers, especially outside the capital, Freetown. In addition to paralegals it also endorses university law clinics, civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations, alongside legal practitioners, as providers of legal aid services.

And here’s a great video following the work of a community-based paralegal from Timap for Justice, a local legal empowerment organization:

And some links I loved…

Shanley Knox writes beautifully about feminism, religion, and revolutions.
“We’re the ones changing your world. We’re the women starting our own businesses and clothing lines and starting revolutions in Egypt – the women who say what we think.”

A great series on IntLawGrrls on Kony 2012, and the peace/justice divide.
“While the prosecution of Kony might have been a critical component of the justice process, many Ugandans thought it should not happen at the expense of the victims (many of whom had become refugees) who wanted to return home and rebuild their lives.”

Wonderful post at How Matters on downward accountability.
“Downward accountability is ultimately about defining impact in a way that places beneficiaries’ perceptions center-stage.”

Roxanne never fails to amaze with stories of her travels in Jerusalem.
“I feel myself gliding like a ghost through the stages of grief: denial, anger, remembrance, nostalgia. I am mourning the end of the Jerusalem chapter.”

Stanford Law Professor Erik Jensen, founder of Afghanistan Legal Education Project, writes:
“The empirical side of me knows the odds of short or even medium-term success in Afghanistan, but I’m also inspired by the people I have worked with in Afghanistan. The Afghan vision of a better future is there, and those Afghans deserve our support as we move forward.”