Namati has just released an excellent and comprehensive review of 199 studies documenting the evidence related to legal empowerment. Does legal aid and awareness ‘work’? If so, how can we measure and conceive of its impact? As Namati writes:

Our main finding is that legal empowerment, in all its myriad forms and wide range of contexts, works. In total, 97 per cent of the studies reported at least one positive change. Even programs that failed to make the changes they were designed for had other, unexpected positive effects on communities, individuals and the law.

Some of the positive changes Namati noted were: increases in personal agency of participants, improvement in health and education outcomes, increases in income, changes in the way government institutions operate, and improvement in functioning of traditional authorities (such as the shalish in Bangladesh).

Definitely worth a read!


I just came across a really interesting new article, Domestic violence made public: a case study of the use of alternative dispute resolution among underprivileged women in Bangladesh, which reveals many of the same lessons and learnings I encountered while in Bangladesh. Some excerpts include (note; most of these are direct quotes):

  • “ADR as practiced in Sylhet, Bangladesh provides poor women a chance to be publicly heard in mediations of their domestic crises. However, ADR often fails to deliver lasting, just, and socially progressive solutions. The adoption of ADR practices should not be considered as an alternative to the development of the formal judicial system, because it lacks the power to enforce agreements and supports the hegemonic status quo, leaving the battered woman and her natal family with very limited options.”
  • The gendered income distribution among labourers was one of the contextual factors that reduced women’s options in cases of domestic violence. Because women earn less than men, it was very difficult for women to leave the home and take children or family members with them.
  • “Apart from the economic hardship, the social condemnation of a woman living without a male guardian makes such a choice undesirable for women. The women themselves consider a house without a man as vulnerable to break-in, sexual abuse, and loss of honour.” […] “Although divorce is an option according to Islamic laws, in practice it is also simultaneously considered unacceptable in Bangladeshi society for both Hindus and Muslims.”
  • The practice of early marriage and dowry, women’s limited property and inheritance rights, obstacles to women working outside the home due to norms of propriety, and social stigma related to marital separation or divorce all contribute to a structural situation in which uneducated, poor women’s options are limited when they encounter domestic violence.
  • The general criminal law has no specific laws on domestic violence against women although some specific acts address issues such as dowry violence, trafficking, and acid throwing. Dealing with ‘ordinary’ domestic violence against women requires going through criminal law or in case of divorce, through family law. One of the shortcomings is that criminal law does not protect a woman by guaranteeing a right to a ‘matrimonial home’, nor does it offer her shelter during the proceedings.
  • Although some legal avenues are available to battered women, economic and cultural constraints can impede women’s access to them. First, the economic resources needed for a legal process are way beyond most socio-economically underprivileged women. Second, women rarely have the social and cultural capital to engage in litigation. And third, the burden on the courts and routine corruption translate to a very slow process and an unpredictable outcome, even if the women should receive monetary and practical support from an organization. Moreover, women are reluctant to proceed through the criminal court because evidence is hard to gain as witnesses do not corroborate in domestic violence.
  • Some organizations do not have sufficiently trained staff to counsel victims of domestic violence and can only provide help by providing legal advice in the mediations. Some advocates have not been sensitivity-trained to reflect on gender asymmetries or to question their own values and conceptions of a woman’s position in the family. They were rarely conscious of the need to find out how the female victims themselves saw their situation and instead concentrated on finding a way to convince the woman to return to her family and on creating goodwill so that they would stop maltreating the young wife.
  • ADR’s impact depends on the structure of power relations within which it operates. Accommodating culture in the process has the effect of privileging existing social relations and thus privileging and strengthening existing forms of domination. The gendered power imbalance in Bangladesh leads to a situation in which divorced women face grave difficulties in arranging their safety and livelihood. Due to this imbalance, the advocates rarely consider divorce an option for a battered woman, leaving her to cope in a domestic situation that may be dangerous for her health and survival.
  • The author proposes the following solution: A better functioning ADR process would require that the local community be more actively engaged in the proceedings. For example, a women’s local collective could act as a pressure group towards the perpetrators of domestic violence to prevent the violation of agreements….The use of ADR should not be an alternative to creating a functioning and just legal system: negotiating without the back-up force of law will not work. The force of a just law has to be available as a last resort. Particularly in cases of domestic violence, there must be a viable option of starting a criminal process at any point of the mediation process.

Everything noted is very much spot-on, and points to my growing discomfort with the way domestic violence is dealt with often through mediations or dispute resolution. Without the real threat of the law, and the criminal justice system, things will not change nor will abuse decrease. I also concur with the suggestion of improving the involvement of the community and urging other local leaders to place pressure on the perpetrators — although this too very much depends on social norms and the willingness of community members to condemn violence.


This March, I had the incredible fortune of going to Kenya for a week, and had an absolutely wonderful time. The country is beautiful, picturesque and vibrant. Things are constantly changing and developing with the country’s new Constitution and decentralization process, and there is a sense of hope, possibility and optimism. It was an amazing time to visit the country. I wanted to share a few pictures!

2014-03-23 09.50.33-1Church in Nairobi on a Sunday.

2014-03-17 18.57.24A visit to the Supreme Court – a new and dynamic institution in itself.

2014-03-18 12.01.52Visits to iHub, an awesome space for tech startups and social enterprises to grow.

2014-03-19 15.02.14Public artwork in Nairobi; a city with many architectural and artistic gems.

2014-03-19 15.37.58Another view of the church in downtown Nairobi.

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2014-03-20 13.16.06Some enlightening conversations with non-profits providing access to legal services and medical services to survivors of rape and domestic violence in and around Kibera. Amazing work is being done expanding women’s access to justice in a critical time of need.

2014-03-20 13.47.04PAWA254: a space for artists and activists to gather, work & collaborate. Beautiful!

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2014-03-21 09.13.47Overlooking the Great Rift Valley on our way out of Nairobi. Such an amazing place.

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Kenya (March 2014)David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage!

2014-03-16 15.23.52Safari in Nairobi National Park!

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2014-03-21 14.16.28

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2014-03-21 15.11.43Waterfall in Lake Nakuru National Park

2014-03-21 17.57.09Ending with a surreal, ethereal sunset boat ride over Lake Naivasha.

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I wanted to share a fantastic TEDx talk I just encountered focused on why you should care about access to justice. I think he articulates, pretty well, why I think access to justice is simply so important and why governments should prioritize and fund legal services for the poor. I also loved his idea of a universal legal services/access to justice fund; though I don’t think we’re there politically, it sounds like a fantastic suggestion.


A great new World Bank Justice & Development Working Paper has been published by Jennifer Franco, Hector Soliman, and Maria Roda Cisnero, focusing on community based paralegalism in the Philippines. The abstract is as follows:

Community-based paralegalism has been active in the Philippines for the past 30 years, and yet its contribution to access to justice and the advancement of the rights and entitlements of the poor has been largely undocumented. This paper attempts to provide a framework study on the history, nature, and scope of paralegal work in the Philippines, based on the experience of 12 organizations that are active in the training and development of community-oriented paralegals. The study first provides a working definition of a community-based paralegal, and then examines the work of paralegals, their systems of accountability or lack thereof, and issues regarding recognition by the state and civil society actors. It also explores facilitating and hindering factors that aid or impinge upon the paralegals’ effectiveness. A major contributor to the work of paralegals was the democratization process after the overthrow of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and the continuing evolution of legal rights spurred by the relatively progressive constitution ratified in 1987. Three dimensions of paralegal’s work are identified and explored, namely, building rights awareness, settling private disputes, and increasing state and corporate accountability. The study ends with conclusions and recommendations with regard to sustainability, monitoring and evaluation, funding, and the prospects for paralegal work over the long term.

There is some excellent analysis here of the long-term paralegal movement in the Philippines, as well as recognition of paralegals by the state and some thorny issues that arise when working in the context of violence against women — my specific interest.


KeertyToday, I am excited to introduce Dr. Keerty NakrayAssociate Professor and Assistant Director, Centre for Women, Law and Social Change at the Jindal Global Law Schoolwho has kindly taken time to speak with me about gender violence, budgeting and potential solutions in India. She has worked extensively on issues relating to gender violence, public health, and budgeting in India. Thanks so much to Dr. Nakray for her insights and valuable thoughts!

1. Tell me more about yourself. What led you to focus on gender violence, budgeting, and public health research and teaching?

My research interests have been shaped consistently over the last decade due to solid training in social theory and fieldwork in different parts of India. As a master’s student, I undertook field based research on reproductive and child health (RCH) in the rural areas of Maharastra, and that is the time I realized that most RCH policies leave women untouched. That was the turning point in my life, as I developed a strong interest in policy research, and thereafter I was clear that I will pursue specialist studies in that field. After working for one year closely with specific child welfare centric social policies that entailed working closely with children and their families, this commitment to pursue further studies was deepened. Following this work experience, I studied planning and development at Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, which again entailed an excellent mix of theory and field work, and it gave me a solid foundation to pursue a PhD. In IIT the topic of my dissertation was on gender budgeting and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (which is an education programme) in India; for the first time I realized that financial resources allocated to various developmental programmes were woefully low. Much of these experiences led to the culmination of my PhD research on gender budgets, social policy and HIV/AIDS in India. With each academic turn I took in life my respect for human life has deepened, and I uphold human rights at every level of my life, which has a profound impact on my research as well.

2. Gender based violence is such a complex and multifaceted problem, especially in India. Through your research, what do you see as the key obstacles to ending gender based violence in India?

Yes, indeed gender based violence is an extremely complex problem with clear roots in the patriarchal cultural ethos in the country. Unless there are substantial cultural changes along with greater empowerment of women through education and economic participation I see very little hope for women in India.

3. What do you see as a potential models or solutions to combat gender violence and empower women in India?

Better economic participation in the formal sectors of the country is likely to contribute to improving women’s status in the society.

4. What is the role of the government in combating violence against women? The role of NGOs? The international community?

Government’s role is at heart of interventions for gender based violence as it can really commit to women’s issues on legislative grounds of substantive equality. The international community should help the Indian government to develop its capabilities to undertake policy orientated research. The NGOs can potentially inform government interventions. I do believe that violence interventions should not be left solely to NGOs as the current levels of violence against women are completely unacceptable and cannot be addressed by NGOs.

5. I know you have done much research on gender budgeting. Can you talk a little about the importance of and impact of budgeting on issues of women’s rights in India?

Budgeting for women’s rights is about theoretically recognizing structural impediments to the realization of women’s citizenship in our society. Within the last five years I have seen more government officials more seriously talking about gender, however the needed structural shift has not taken place and changes taking place in women’s status is more to do with better education and need for women’s skilled labour in a rapidly growing Indian economy — and very little to change in laws or policies.

6. Does part of ending violence against women involves a shift in attitudes? If so, how can we move towards changing mindsets?

That is too easy an answer to a difficult question. Much of the violence against women is rooted in the systemic organization of our social institutions, and this violence is increasingly becoming invisible with an attempt to push women away from positions of power. I feel that unless we recognize that women’s identity is not only shaped by their gender but also intersects with their racial, religious, caste and ethnic identities. I have seen violence specifically targeted at women from marginalized groups and with little or no sympathy from women’s from privileged locations. I do not see a shift in women’s position happening unless current power hierarchies are pushed to substantive equality.


Please watch the above TEDx Talk by Alok Vaid-Menon. Then digest. And share. He provides some much needed reminders to reconsider how we view success in this world, and what it truly will take to contribute to social justice and social change. Some of my favorite quotes:

Should you desire to be successful you will not actually bring human rights for all, eliminate poverty, end nuclear war, or fix Congress. If you go in with this mindset chances are you will be defeated like all the generations before us.

The key to changing the world is to fail to live up to its expectations.

Success has never really been about fixing problems; it’s been about perpetuating them. The pomp and circumstance around success masks over the incredible violence it takes to accomplish.

Success is about self-promotion, not putting change into motion.

What is the point of a thesis written in a language inaccessible by the very people it is about? What is the point of a researcher who knows the name of theorists but not the names of her own neighbors? Who is invited to present a paper on a movement and who must die for it?

Please watch. And thanks to Alok for this honest and humbling talk on what’s important — and that if we want to truly make social change and social justice, we have to bond together and let go of traditional ideas of success.


I am truly excited to announce my very first published paper! I’ve been working on this paper since 2012, when I spent two months in Bangladesh researching BRAC’s expansive and community-based legal aid and legal empowerment program, and particularly its impact on women’s rights.

I’m very happy to say that my piece has been published by the World Bank Justice and Development Working Paper Series. I could not be more thankful to BRAC for allowing me to conduct this research and to study their access to justice and dispute resolution model, and also to the World Bank for choosing to focus on important issues of legal empowerment of the poor — an issue all too often neglected among other development and human rights priorities. Here’s the abstract:

This piece examines the current status of justice and dispute-resolution mechanisms in Bangladesh, ranging from the formal justice system to the traditional shalish (a form of dispute resolution), and focuses on the costs and benefits of utilizing nongovernmental organization (NGO)-led legal services programs as an alternative form of justice delivery and dispute resolution for the poor, with a focus on women and girls. In particular, this paper takes a closer look at the Human Rights and Legal Aid Services (HRLS) program of BRAC, a leading NGO that works to empower the poorest and most vulnerable in Bangladesh and eleven other countries across the world. HRLS provides a combination of BRAC-led shalish, human rights community based education, community mobilization through a corps of community-based outreach workers (known as shebikas), and recourse to the courts via a network of panel lawyers if needed. This paper will examine the successes of this model in rural Bangladesh as well as the challenges it faces in making an impact on solving the justice problems of the poor and contributing to gender equity. Ultimately, it aims to present a case study that illustrates the strengths and challenges of a legal empowerment model that is quickly gaining traction around the world.

 You can read the complete piece here.

Also, please take a look at some of the other working papers in this series – they are all truly incredible and shed light on a range of fascinating and important issues within access to justice, rule of law, and legal empowerment.