Although the entire Bangladeshi population holds the right to access justice systems, there is a big gap between theory and practice due to costs, backlogs, and a lack of resources and knowledge by the people seeking out these services. More often than not, even in the case of simple claims, they can get delayed due to formalities and administrative complications. Furthermore, given that formal judicial systems are normally located in urban areas, it is difficult for the majority of the population to have physical access to them given that eight in ten Bangladeshis reside in villages.
Therefore, most of the population turns to informal mechanisms, such as the shalish. Through these sessions disputants can solve their problems quicker, with few to no costs, and in a way where they are able to express themselves freely given their informal nature. Also, by creating a space in which local disputes can be addressed, the shalish system is effective in preventing the escalation of violence of these issues.
Shalish sessions consist of influential and well-respected leaders in the community who come together to settle disputes and listen to the actors involved, as well as their families. This community-based mechanism can be invoked to deliberate on a multitude of civil matters, but most commonly on issues about family and gender, such as violence against women, inheritance or divorce, and land ownership. Given that each case is unique and the gravity of the problems addressed varies, there is no set structure or defined size or timing for these gatherings. Also, although the main purpose of the panels is mediation or arbitration, in its most severe form they can assert punishment over individuals which have not agreed to its jurisdiction.
There are three types of shalish sessions(although it is important to note that these often overlap in practice):
- Traditional shalish – involve the gathering of male village elders and concerned actors to settle community disputes. Even though some of the deliberations are not fair and equitable, they hold significant value because they come from well-known and respected individuals in the community. However, given that they are run only by high-level males, women are susceptible to receive harsh punishments through the issuance of fatwas, or legal rulings issued by recognised religious authorities of Islam. Corruption is common as a way to maintain the spheres of influence over these judiciary systems and perpetuate cultural norms and biases.
- Government-facilitated shalish – include the participation of the Union Parishad (UP, which is the lowest level of local elected government) as chairs and members leading the sessions and considering the laws meant to regulate the punishments delivered. However, it is widely reported that the structure and dynamics of this kind of shalish are highly similar to the traditional form in the way that local patronage systems affect the decision-making processes, and the rights of women and vulnerable groups are largely ignored. Nevertheless, there is a growing trend in the inclusion of women in UPs.
- NGO-facilitated shalish – provide gender and social justice training and education to shalish and community members, as well as support the organisation of sessions and introduce record-keeping techniques. The Madaripur Legal Aid Association (MLAA) has been the most significant actor in promoting this framework and advocating for the modification of gender and class biases in these processes, and has also trained various other NGOs in the matter.
The participation of NGOs in these judiciary systems has proven effective in mitigating corruption and gender and class biases, and to have a positive impact on the performance of these systems. Leaders now feel discouraged from extorting the disputants in order to rule in their favour, and the documentation of all sessions strengthens enforcement mechanisms. Also, if faced with major criminal cases in which the leaders of the shalish are personally involved in, NGOs have been able to intervene and bring in the necessary state judicial forces (e.g. lawyers, police, prosecutors and judges) to make the matter more equitable. Moreover, they encourage the participation of women and disadvantaged communities, whether as shalish panellists or as disputants during sessions.
Furthermore, by providing education to the community about their rights, abuses by members of high-levels of society are avoided. An example of this can be illustrated by the rights of divorced couples. Often times religious leaders would profess that the only way a woman could remarry would be by having sexual relations with another man other than the husband, which would be suggested to be the religious leaders themselves. Due to a combination of all these elements, NGOs are having a positive influence on the gradual sustainability on the improvement of shalish sessions.
Although they can perpetuate poverty and the powerlessness of women and vulnerable groups if executed ineffectively or infiltrated by corruption, shalish sessions do provide communities with free access to justice. Also, given that they are carried out in an informal and familiar manner with the presence of multiple people in society, people are able to express themselves freely because it adds an element of comfort in community members. Settling these disputes locally also has strengthened community solidarity where practiced. Lastly, since the leaders of these sessions are well-respected, they are members of the community and there is participation from all the parties involved in each particular case, the decisions hold more value because people are seen as more accountable by their peers than the formal justice system.
Policy and Research Papers
This report explores how to engage local actors in international development programming that aims to strengthen service delivery in fragile situations. Apart from a discussion of how policy-makers and practitioners should approach local actors and centrally governed institutions systemically, three case studies are presented. They explore different types of external support, and the effect it has had, exploring community policing in Sierra Leone, primary healthcare by village doctors in Bangladesh, and primary education provided by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), traditional voluntary organizations and madrasas – religious seminaries – in Pakistan.
The report puts forward two interrelated arguments. First, the quantity and quality of service provision in fragile situations cannot simply be equated with a set of centrally governed institutions. Service delivery in fragile situations is performed by a broad range of actors, including, but not limited to, NGOs, grass-roots organizations and community-based organizations, faith based organizations, traditional voluntary organizations, customary organizations (chiefs and tribal leaders), and religious leaders.
Second, no local service provider acts independent of the broader system of governance in which it operates. As a rule, local service providers are part of an extensive system of governance that incorporates a variety of centrally and locally embedded organizations and institutions. The systemic nature of how public services are delivered must be central to any development design and programming endeavor that seeks to enhance service delivery, including the varied nature of the actors that constitutes this system.
It is entirely feasible that local actors determine (or co-determine) how a particular service is provided, while some specific and indirect coordination and oversight functions are organized and/or developed by centrally governed institutions in the long-term. At the same time, the three cases show that the direct and indirect functions they should take on depend on the willingness, capacity and legitimacy to do so, which can only develop incrementally. In the long-term, this leads to a governance system that strengthens locally and centrally governed institutions simultaneously.
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.
To view this publication, please follow this link.
This report identifies lessons relevant for donors and implementing agencies seeking to support community-based approaches to security. It is based on Saferworld and partners’ community security work in Kosovo, Nepal and Bangladesh in 2010–13.
The report suggests that community security programmes produce measurable improvements to communities’ own experiences of safety and security. It also identifies a range of results relevant to the provision of capable, accountable and responsive security provision and wider peacebuilding and statebuilding efforts.
The findings argue for the critical role of civil society in security and justice sector development and point to some of the measures necessary to support such groups effectively. The report reinforces the observation that successful security and justice interventions need to integrate both community-based and institutionally led reforms. Finally, it provides some practical lessons for donors and agencies seeking to support community-based approaches to safety and security through their work.
Summary of this briefing on Community Security in Bangladesh published by Saferworld:
As in many developing countries, Bangladesh’s security architecture continues to conform to conventional practices that prioritise state security through institution-building above all. While delivering some sense of security, this approach means authorities tend to be more reactive to security needs, rather than being proactive and taking preventative actions.
Additionally, the security situation in Bangladesh is becoming more precarious, with political polarisation increasing the threat of violence and creating space for growing extremist ideologies and the associated cycles of violence that are typical of attempts to express or supress those ideologies.
Building peace and preventing violence across Bangladesh requires a participatory approach, with full support from and cooperation of local communities, and complemented by able and empowered civil society organisations. This process must begin by rebuilding trust between authorities and communities. Community Security: Experiences from Bangladesh outlines how to do this through a collaborative approach called ‘community security’, which brings people together to identify security challenges and plan how to address them collectively. The briefing draws on lessons learned and best practices from Saferworld and BRAC’s mid-term community security programme review, which covers June 2012–June 2014 – the midway point of our four-year programme. It also sets out recommendations for how policymakers in Bangladesh can contribute to lasting peace and security.
You can download the full brief in English here.
In rural Bangladesh, women have historically been excluded from participating in traditional justice, rarely even attending even their own hearings. The state, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and women leaders have been working towards changing this situation for the better.
This study in one of the poorest areas of the country suggests women’s participation as leaders in community dispute resolution has increased, although the authors remain doubtful as to whether they can influence what kind of justice is delivered. In-depth interviews with women leaders at the community level in Rangpur suggest their ability to participate depends on their family dynamics, political connections, house-hold economy, education and NGO networks. The personal stories of women show how these interrelate and interact with legal, institutional and social changes in Bangladesh.
The study concludes that progress on this front requires sustained engagement – from the state, NGOs and women leaders. International donors can continue to support progressive social change through providing careful, context-specific funding to grassroots organisations.
This case study is an output from the Women’s voice and leadership in decision-making project.
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.
For full access to this paper on Women's Participation in Communal Justice in Rural Bangladesh , please kindly follow this link.
In May 2018, Razia Sultana, a human rights activist and lawyer, addressed the UN Security Council on the Rohingya situation on behalf of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security. During her time in New York, she spoke with the International Peace Institute’s Sarah Taylor about her work in the region, relating vivid stories of the brutality suffered by the Rohingya.
To read the full interview, Sexual Violence Against the Rohingya: Q&A with Razia Sultana, please follow the link.
This report features 13 case studies that together highlight the range and impact of UNDP’s engagement with the media for the purpose of achieving development outcomes. First, it seeks to demonstrate that, across development contexts, UNDP has increasingly identified media engagement as a priority for its policy and programmes. Second, the report seeks to outline UNDP’s comparative advantage and unique role in this area of work as well as to spark new approaches on media engagement and build new partnerships with media actors, the private sector, civil society and governments. Finally, by delving into the challenges and lessons learned across UNDP’s initiatives, the report seeks to contribute to broader debates among a range of stakeholders on how to design more effective and sustainable policies and programmes to support the roles of the media, which can better meet the needs and challenges of today’s complex media ecosystems.
To access the full report, UNDP’s Engagement with the Media for Governance, Sustainable Development and Peace, kindly follow the link.