Legal empowerment as a way out of poverty?

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29 October 2017
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29 October 2017

By Sajeda Farisa Kabir

It’s a story that we have all heard before. A poor girl from the village gets married in her early teens. Her education is stopped because her parents cannot manage to have so many mouths at home to feed. She is mistreated at her in-laws and beaten for dowry. Within a couple of years of marriage, she becomes a mother. Finally, when she has had enough or is forced to leave her husband’s home, she returns to her parent’s house and the vicious cycle of poverty continues. Such stories have almost become a cliché. To a certain extent, we have become desensitised to this and have convinced ourselves that this is the way it is always been and there is nothing we can do about it. Such is the fate of young girls of rural Bangladesh.

In our country, child marriage is a reality. Financial vulnerability of parents and social pressure plays a big part in ensuring that young girls are not able to stay in school and are married off before they are physically and mentally mature enough to understand the nature of marriage and the responsibility that comes with it. They get married with little or no education and after divorce, they are even more vulnerable than before, having no skill or training or knowledge to earn a living.

BRAC’s network of legal aid clinics in Bangladesh have served many such girls, who have come for help when their marriage has broken down. Through mediation services, the Human Rights and Legal Aid Services (HRLS) programme, has successfully recovered a large sum of money on behalf of its young clients. In 2016 alone, approximately 15,000 mediations were conducted through BRAC and around BDT 31 crore was recovered. Ninety seven percent of HRLS’ clients are women. The average amount of dower in rural Bangladesh is Tk. 50,000 with the exception of Chittagong and Sylhet where the amount can be Tk. 100,000 and above. Legal aid programmes in Bangladesh has been effective in providing access to justice to many poor and disadvantaged people, especially women across the country; without such programmes, the underprivileged would face many challenges in claiming their rights (if at all), and find it difficult if not impossible in accessing the courts and fight a long, arduous legal battle.

It is, however, rare that this amount when received by the client along with maintenance for her and her child is used wisely. The money is spent quickly, or given to male members of the household (father or brother) to decide on how to use it. The money is seldom spent, keeping in mind long term returns and investments. This is where the problem lies. Even though these young women have taken a big step in coming forward to seek legal redress for their problems, this remedy alone (of seeking and receiving dower and maintenance) is not sufficient to make any significant changes to their lives. Unless the money they receive is used wisely, they are back where they started, but worse off by many folds. Divorced, broke, a single parent.

So the question arises, can we break this vicious cycle? Can young women come out of poverty? What can a girl do if she has access to a small pot of cash? Can she start a business? Can she get training? Can she equip herself with a basic skill which qualifies her for employment in a factory? I don’t see why not. But, she cannot do it alone. This is where the government and NGOs can play a part.

Legal aid programmes may start by giving support to their clients beyond a successful mediation and recovering of dower and maintenance money. Legal aid providers may view themselves as advisors and a medium through which the young clients can get access to reliable advice, training information and scope for schooling for their little ones. It is not necessary that the legal aid providers should have the internal capacity to provide such services themselves. It is helpful to assist in creating linkages with other organisations who may provide trainings to vulnerable women, thereby increasing their capacity and equipping them with skills, for instance, to work in a factory. Over the course of the next few years, HRLS intends to do just that. Create linkages with other BRAC programmes and other similar minded organisations so that the young clients of HRLS can have access to employment or financial assistance or skills training. BRAC as an organisation has the internal capacity to provide these facilities to its beneficiaries, either through its microfinance program, the skills development program or the migration program to name a few. What is necessary is the establishment of a formal referral system between programmes and when required external organisations so that clients are given advice and guidance as to what they can do next.

Some may argue that legal aid providers have done their jobs if they have successfully mediated a case which has helped their clients assert and claim their legal rights; their job ends there. I would have to disagree to that to a certain extent. While this statement may hold true for a lot of people, it is certainly not the case for the vulnerable young clients who come to the legal aid clinics. These clients do not have financial literacy and lack awareness about their options in order to be economically independent. They are especially fragile, defenseless and prone to exploitation time and time again if not advised or guided properly.

Legal aid should be viewed as a tool in the fight against poverty. These programmes are the first port of call for some of the most vulnerable women in society. Through legal aid programs, these women can be identified and brought into mainstream programs which seek to alleviate poverty. Legal aid programmes have the potential to do much more and provide a holistic support to its clients beyond mediation and court case support.

This is particularly true when we talk about the “youth” of our country. In a conversation about youth, the young divorced parent is often not factored into the equation. With child marriage being as prevalent as it is in this country, there will always be a section of girls, who require inclusion into programmes which offer skills training and financial advice so that they may start rebuilding their life after a volatile marriage followed by a bitter divorce.

We want to see these clients, especially young girls go further in life, make something of themselves so that they have choices. A choice for a better life, a better future for their children.

The writer is Programme Head, Human Rights and Legal Aid Services Programme, BRAC, and advocate at Supreme Court.  

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