In many developing countries women continue to be marginalized and discriminated, which has propelled the issue of women empowerment into a key component of development policy interventions. A new ODI report titled Women and power: Mediating community justice in rural Bangladesh focuses on rural Bangladesh, where women have historically been excluded from participating, yet alone leading, traditional justice processes. The authors argue that there is a lack of analysis on the issue of women’s leadership, particularly on whether women have any influence once in a position of leadership.
This report, written by Craig Valters and Ferdous Jahan, is part of the DFID-funded Women’s Voice and Leadership in Decision-Making two-year (2014-2016) project. This project studies women’s voice and leadership globally, focusing on themes such as political participation, social activism, and economic empowerment. The countries covered by this project have been Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Gaza, Kenya, and Malawi, allowing for a cross-continental overview.
In this Bangladesh case study, the focus is on the presence and influence of women in community dispute resolution, drawing on finding of two programmes: Activating Village Courts in Bangladesh (AVCV) and Nagorik Uddyog’s (NU’s) Grassroots’ Women’s Leadership Network (GWLN). Through a series of in-depth interviews with women leaders at community level in the Rangpur region, the authors find that although there are persistent obstacles to women having influence in justice forums, their increased presence in this sector demonstrates a positive development.
The justice system in Bangladesh – Structure and changes
Following Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, the 1972 constitution established a judicial sector based on legal pluralism. The lowest body is the village courts, followed by district-level courts and ultimately the Supreme Court. The inclusion and acknowledgment of grassroots judicial mechanisms was crucial as small-scale local councils, or shalish, have been a dominant forum of dispute resolution despite not having formal legal authority. The shalish typically involves village elders, religious leaders, elected representatives and other influential community members.
The role of the village courts has been progressively more and more prominent in the Bangladeshi judicial system. The village courts were institutionalized under the Village Courts Ordinance 1976, which mandated them to deal with both civil and criminal cases with the requirement of following an informal procedure of dispute settlement. The village courts are structured in a manner to closely follow the structure of local communities. The chair of the Union Parishad is also a chair of the village court, working together with a panel of five members, with two members each for the disputants. These forums nevertheless saw minimal women’s participation, even in terms of attending own hearings.
In recent years, many NGO efforts have focused on drawing on the tradition and popularity of shalish to create community forums of dispute resolution that would create a forum for women’s voice. Examples of these efforts include small hearings with trained paralegals to attempts to replicate the shalish process in public spaces. The authors report that many respondents from the NU identified a clear distinction between shalish that were NGO-led and NGO-facilitated. An NGO-led shalish is understood as a setting where the NGO dominates the process, while an NGO-facilitated process sees greater ownership by the locals, where the NGO merely provides training, for example.
Progress on women’s participation
As mentioned above, the report focused on two concrete projects. The first, organized by NU, began in 1995 with the aim to raise women’s awareness of their rights. Its shalishwork is closely linked with the GWLN, which seeks to provide a forum for growing social awareness and mobilization. While the authors observed an increased vocal presence by women in the shalish, very few actually formed a part of the chairing team. The second, the AVCB village court project is being jointly undertaken by the Ministry of Local Government Division (LGD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the European Commission (EC). It primarily aims to make village courts an accessible forum across the country. Arguably, however, this fosters the division between what is understood as ‘women’s issues’ and other problems. It must be noted that the authors acknowledge that much of the organizations’ success was reached thanks to donor contribution, suggesting that consistent funding for organizations sensitive to the issues at hand can be a valuable contribution.
The work of NGOs has significantly contributed to improving women’s access to justice and empowering them within their communities. At the same time, these efforts have been supplemented by institutional and legal changes fostering women’s participation in decision-making. Local government reforms in 1997, therefore two years after the NU launched its project, created quotas for women’s participation through elections, thereby raising the importance of their participation within their communities. Moreover, in 2003 an amendment to the Village Court Act resulted in the mandatory presence of women in cases involving minors and women, an aim advocated for by the AVCB. This amendment de facto highlighted women’s ability to act in practical and strategic manners in sensitive issues. While the authors note that the debate on gender equality was still weak, such recognition of women allows them to raise their voice in gendered issues such as child marriage and domestic violence.
The results of the interviews conducted by the authors demonstrate that positive developments have occurred in terms of increasing women’s participation in rural justice mechanisms, while noting that this increased presence has remained mainly symbolic in the sense that women’s participation in shalish is still not universally accepted as a given right. The authors note that a combination of factors such as family dynamics, political connections, household economy, education and participation in NGO and women’s networks play a role in whether a women participates in decision-making or not. The recognition of a women’s ability to ‘speak up’ is therefore vital to promote women’s engagement in these issues within communities. With the societal structures that reflect a predominantly male dominance of the lite interests on political, social and economic decision-making, there are still many obstacles that must be crossed to fully progress on women’s access and influence in these forums.
Recommendations for future progress
Based on the evidence gathered during the project, the authors conclude that in order to continue making progress on the presence and influence of women as mediators in justice systems, it is key to promote community engagement on the issue. As mentioned above, the authors found that there is a persisting disconnect between the rising number of women who participate and the societal acceptance of this. The authors thus provide a series of recommendations for gender advocates as well as international donors. For gender advocates and frontline women’s organizations the authors stress the importance of engaging the community as a whole, meaning both men and women, in developing women’s leadership in a multidimensional manner. This includes a focus on avoiding the reinforcement of divides on what constitutes a ‘man’ or ‘woman’ issue, by engaging in a variety of activities to challenge the power imbalances in Bangladesh’s society.
In order to achieve the above, the authors recommend that international donors support grassroots organizations that aim at building women’s leadership, focusing on organizations that can demonstrate a thorough knowledge and experience in the field, as well as openness to new approaches. Finally, the authors highlight the need for context-specificity and long-term programming, given that empowering women in Bangladesh’s justice sector is not long-term project. Nevertheless, funding should be determined wisely, by only funding the productive local organizations with as much money as can be realistically used to achieve their goals. Such an approach therefore emphasizes the outcomes and concrete steps to achieve a goal rather than just providing large sums of money that do not lead to fruitful initiatives.
Initiatives to support locally led justice processes that foster women’s participation have great influence on the development agenda as they provide examples of how to develop and implement innovating approaches to security and justice. This particular case demonstrated the importance of focusing not only on raising the number of women involved in justice mechanisms, but more importantly increasing their influence. In projects dedicated to giving women a voice in traditionally patriarchal societies, this aspect is key for the long-term process of societal acceptance of women in leadership roles. For all innovative approaches to security and justice, it is key to support grassroots initiatives while thoroughly analyzing what is truly needed, i.e. what is lacking, to set the stage for durable outcomes. More importantly, evaluations of cases such as these projects in Bangladesh provide a knowledge base for major international donors on how to better manage funding in these types of projects. This is because different projects and approaches require different material support. Focusing on providing more specific amounts of money to projects with realistic targets is likely to yield more tangible results as this helps to narrow the focus of the implemented activities.
Tereza Steinhüblova is a Centre for Security Governance intern and a recent graduate of the University of St Andrews with an M.Litt in Peace and Conflict Studies. She has previously interned with non-governmental and diplomatic organizations in the UN system and her main research interests include international security, post-conflict reconstruction, disarmament, and natural resource governance.