£17 million UK aid spent on legal services for Bangladeshi women – did it work?

3 April 2017
Comment

Bangladeshi rural communities are often strongly patriarchal. Women in these communities, particularly those suffering from domestic violence, find it difficult to make crimes public.

If they go to a local leader or court, they are often seen as bringing shame on their family. If they do bring a case, the legal system can work against them. The traditional manner of resolving disputes, through a committee of respected elites (or, shalish), is often male-dominated and oppressive for women.

To tackle these challenges, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) provided £17 million in funding over a five-year period to local organisations aiming to support community legal services (CLS).

These organisations would have two main objectives: raise legal awareness and provide support to people with disputes – either by helping to resolve the disputes directly, or by referring them to legal aid. Many of those who brought disputes were women. Many suffered from domestic violence.

With UK aid currently under considerable scrutiny, our new review of this project gives a nuanced picture of what aid can achieve.

The good news: DFID’s support to these organisations was commendable

For decades, scholars have critiqued aid projects for wasting significant resources trying to copy and transplant Western justice institutions, such as the formal courts. They have trained judges and built court houses, but didn’t take into account the wider political, social or economic circumstances that facilitated these institutions in the first place.

DFID and the CLS project took a different tack: they started by analysing the day-to-day legal problems faced by poor and marginalised groups in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh has a rich diversity of people, with numerous religions, ethnicities, languages and histories. People face quite different problems depending on who they are, and where they’re from.

For example, child marriage has recently hit the headlines – the government has pushed through a law allowing marriage of under 18s in ‘special circumstances’. However, the practice is far more prevalent in some areas than others. As such, funding local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with local networks and knowledge is crucial.

As a result of DFID’s spending, and its local focus, huge numbers of Bangladeshis became aware of the existing formal legal remedies, and the ways in which they could make claims. In one district of southern Bangladesh, an NGO claimed to have worked with up to 21,000 people as part of community outreach on legal issues.

Huge numbers of Bangladeshis became aware of the existing formal legal remedies, and their interactions with the justice system have often become fairer.

People’s interactions with the justice system have often become fairer. For example, in the traditional shalish, women were unable to attend their own hearings, and were treated with disrespect if they did go. In the NGO mediation supported by the project, women were often given equal time to speak, and therefore heard in public in ways previously unavailable to them.

The NGOs funded by the project, or community groups they helped form, often took it upon themselves to tackle serious problems. During our research, we heard how one community group managed to prevent a child marriage. After failing at first to convince the girl’s father, they succeeded through leveraging their local political relationships. The groom went on to enter a different arranged marriage – which ended quickly after persistent domestic violence. Hearing of this, the girl’s father thanked the members of community group for protecting his daughter. 

It is in this – the day-to-day defences of people’s dignity – that gradual social change can emerge.

‘Courtyard meeting’ for raising awareness on legal rights and entitlements, Madaripur Sadar Upazila, Madaripur District, Bangladesh, 2012 © Emdadul Islam Bitu

The bad news: it didn’t go far enough

The CLS project was only funded to provide a legal service. Yet achieving true justice relies on challenging wider social and economic realities.

When women in Bangladesh marry, they typically move in with their husband and his family. Rural villages are often small, close-knit places. Economic opportunities may be in short supply. If a woman brings forward a domestic violence case, what happens next? Who can she go to for support?

After making a claim with an NGO, a woman will likely have to return home and wait for a letter calling her to a shalish, NGO mediation or legal aid meeting. The threat of legal action may make the husband reconsider his conduct, and therefore make things better. It could also make things worse. If a woman were to leave her husband, there is virtually no wider social and economic support. Both of these issues create significant risks for women who want to raise a case.

The threat of legal action may make the husband reconsider his conduct, and therefore make things better. It could also make things worse. If a woman were to leave her husband, there is virtually no wider social and economic support.

Even steps that seem positive on the surface don’t always pan out. In several cases, we saw women win in their claim. They then received money as compensation or maintenance. Yet often the man of the household – the father or the husband – kept that money.

Does this make the work of NGOs irrelevant? No. The steps they are taking are small, but important, and do change people’s lives. However, unequal power relations can’t be overturned overnight – and attempting to do so can put people at risk.

The truth is, it’s really hard to get this right

International donors have grappled for decades with how to help improve access to justice. This is a deeply political, sensitive and difficult process, which will always take time.

One challenge is that UK aid projects now typically want to achieve clear and quantifiable ‘results’. But in the Bangladesh project, this led to a focus on breadth of coverage (reaching as many clients as possible) over depth of services. It brings into question whether breadth – such as reaching the 21,000 people above – is always something to be celebrated.

Equally, aid projects are often broken down into specific chunks, such as ‘justice’, ‘health’ or ‘economic development’ – which do not reflect the reality of how interconnected these issues are and how they affect people’s lives. Donors often do not have the resources or mandate to do something more comprehensive.

We need to recognise that the role of international expertise and finance in challenging these inequalities is often more modest than we like to admit.

To lay the ongoing gender inequalities in Bangladesh at the door of DFID or the NGOs who implement their projects would be wrong. But we need to recognise that the role of international expertise and finance in challenging these inequalities is often more modest than we like to admit. Indeed both can do harm.

However, this project shows that through a long-term, committed and thoughtful approach, donors can support incremental change in justice issues that have a positive impact on people’s day-to-day lives.