Paralegals Helping Women in Bangladesh

Paralegals exist in third world countries and are often the heroes of the villages.  A fascinating article in The New Nation, illustrates just how important paralegals are to one village in Bangladesh.  Banchte Shekha: Development Program for Women and Children was founded by one woman, Angela Gomes-a tall, vibrant women in her early forties in this country where thatch and bamboo huts dot the roadside and squatting women fan breakfast fires. The rising smoke sways and mingles with clouds of fog that hang over tiny ponds and paddieslaughs.  Gomes chats with the women as she helps serve a meal of porridge, chapatis, and papaya.

Many of these women have spent the night at Banchte Shekha-a safe haven for them from an abusive husband or in-laws. For others, Banchte Shekha-which is Bangla for "learning to live"-is part of a longer journey, a first step toward self-sufficiency and dignity. For all of them, Banchte Shekha offers hope, because one woman believed that poor village women could have better lives, even when they didn’t believe it themselves. In the small village in Bangladesh where Angela Gomes grew up, women worked hard all day, but, she says, "they were treated like house servants-underfed, beaten, and mentally tortured. No one respected them, not even themselves. They had no solutions to their problems. Life just went on."

Gomes took the responsibility to develop various programs to assist women in need.  One of her strongest achievements was the training of paralegals.  The legal assistance program, has its origins in early confrontations between members and other villagers, usually husbands. If a man beat his wife, he might find himself surrounded by thirty or forty angry Banchte Shekha women who would gather to publicly denounce him. Often they would make him sign a paper saying that he would not harm his wife again. A man who tried to desert or divorce his wife, or take a second wife, had to contend with Banchte Shekha members who were supported not only by group strength, but a knowledge of the law.

In 1987 Banchte Shekha decided to launch the village-based paralegal program, and, with support from The Asia Foundation, this Legal Aid Cell has become one of the most innovative paralegal programs in the country. It is also the only one run entirely by women.

The volunteer paralegals are village women who receive training in Muslim family law on dowry, the marriage system, legal divorce, and inheritance. These paralegals provide information to members and other villagers about their rights, and they participate in the shalish, the village form of mediation in Bangladesh.

Until recently, women were not represented at a shalish, even when their own future was at stake. Their male relatives were supposed to represent them, and all the decisions were made by the village men. Banchte Shekha’s paralegal program has helped change that.

Three hundred and fifty women have been trained so far as paralegals. They work under the direction of one of the earliest Banchte Shekha members, Rokeya Sattar, herself a village woman who was married at thirteen and abandoned at twenty-two with her four children.

The paralegals have proven to be very effective. By July 1991, they had settled 2,119 disputes at the village level and effected 2,382 marriages without dowry. Attorneys who have evaluated the program have been struck by the poise and confidence of the women as they put their cases before the shalish or hold their own in difficult negotiations.

The legal program has been further strengthened by Asia Foundation support that gives the women the money and the clout to say that they will take a case to court and litigate if mediation fails. In the first four years of the program they have won 278 court cases.

Gomes hopes Banchte Shekha will continue to grow and that other organizations will learn from their experience.

"We have never claimed that this is the only approach to development," she says. "Certainly there may be other ways. The problems of poor women in Bangladesh have been centuries in the making. By comparision, eighteen years is not a long time. But every day is a new day. We have to be creative to cope with the changes it brings."

I will never complain about no lemonade on the 44th floor; having to park a block away or not enough toner in the photocopy machine ever again.