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A 2015 survey found that over half of the married women and girls in Bangladesh had suffered some form of abuse. Less than 3% of these survivors took legal action. Seeking justice without basic knowledge of the legal system is difficult, particularly for women from low-income families. How is BRAC helping to change that? Through barefoot lawyers.
The barefoot lawyers of BRAC’s human rights and legal aid services programme – known locally as ain shebikas – are trained to act as one-woman, mobile legal-aid service clinics. Women, particularly in Bangladesh’s rural areas, hesitate to talk openly about abuse and domestic violence, so having another woman to speak to, who is trained specifically to help people take action on these issues, helps to encourage women to report cases. As of December 2020, more than four million women have been trained on legal rights by barefoot lawyers.
In 1986, BRAC established the Human Rights and Legal Aid Services programme to focus on the legal issues of low-income communities in Bangladesh. Its primary objectives are to provide legal education and legal services, and to mobilise communities to raise their voices against injustice, discrimination and exploitation. The programme has recently expanded its work to include legal support either through court cases, or alternative dispute resolution, as well as contributing to national policy issues.
The programme operates a network of more than 5,000 barefoot lawyers across the country. The lawyers are chosen from within the communities they live in, and act as the first point of contact for human rights violations in their communities. They are all women, in order to be as accessible as possible, particularly to women in the communities.
The lawyers are trained through regular capacity building workshops and interactive sessions. Their knowledge on contemporary human rights and legal rights issues is updated every month, through refresher sessions. Equipped with flipcharts, booklets, leaflets and other course materials, they impart knowledge on dowry, child marriage, divorce, land inheritance and other legal issues that women face, throughout rural Bangladesh. They receive an honorarium based on the classes they take to educate women.
Lessons on legal issues are held during courtyard meetings, during which the barefoot lawyers establish social networks within the community. Functioning as leaders and access points in their communities, they earn the respect and trust among women. This trust allows them to support and rescue survivors of human rights violations, through legal referrals.
Hafiza Akhtar was married off by her parents because they thought she was a burden to the family. During her marriage, she had been subjected to domestic violence while her husband kept demanding dowry. Her husband left her after years of torture, abandoning their newborn daughter.
Hafiza sought legal advice from a barefoot lawyer, who helped her in successfully claiming a settlement and alimony from her ex-husband. Hafiza invested that money in an agricultural business. Today, she is financially solvent enough to provide for her daughter on her own, who she dreams of sending to school one day.
In many marginalised communities across the world, violence against women is socially normalised to such extent that many survivors accept it as a part of their lives.
The efforts of the barefoot lawyers to educate women from marginalised communities brings about the behavioural change required to oppose discrimination, intolerance, and all forms of abuse. The lawyers operate on a 3P model: ‘Prevent-Protest-Protect’.
With the ongoing pandemic, BRAC Human Rights and Legal Aid Services documented a nearly 70% increase in reported incidents of violence against women and girls in March and April of 2020, compared to the same time the previous year. Even during the pandemic, barefoot lawyers facilitated case referrals on behalf of women and conducted Human Rights and Legal Education classes, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.
The collaborative efforts of BRAC’s barefoot lawyers across Bangladesh has helped 226,722 women to successfully claim settlements worth USD 41.53 million through alternative dispute resolutions since the programme began operations.
Barefoot lawyers, and their relentless pursuits have extended support to thousands of women like Hafiza, who are now aware of their legal rights and empower themselves to create better futures for themselves and their children.
Karishma Mahfuz is a Deputy Manager of Communications at BRAC Human Rights and Legal Aid Services.