Legal literacy: From pedagogy to reality

Legal literacy: From pedagogy to reality

By Arefeen Ahmed

Note: this post is adapted from a BRAC blog entry by the same title.  Read the original here.

Case story: Change makers

Mukul Jaan comes from Natore, a district in northern Bangladesh. She first learned about BRAC’s Human Rights and Legal Education (HRLE) course through neighbours who talked about their experience of the classes. She was struck by their level of legal awareness and even more so by their motivation to convene as a community to resolve injustice.  She became inspired to learn about approaches to upholding human rights and dignity in her community and decided to join the HRLE course herself.  After graduation went on to become an Ohikar Bastobayon Committee (OBC) member, working as an advocate for her community.

In October 2012, Mukul Jaan’s knowledge was put to the test.  A young girl was being forced by her family to marry.

In October 2012, Mukul Jaan’s knowledge was put to the test.  A young girl named Rizwana (not her real name) was being forced by her family to marry.  She was only in Class 5.  Mukul learned of the situation and, along with fellow OBC members Monwara and Afela, rushed to the child’s house.  The three spoke to the family about the illegality of child marriage and explained the dangerous health risks that their daughter might face if she were forced to marry at such a young age.  They pointed out the pitfalls of stopping Rizwana’s education, including the potential for psychological trauma.  Despite their best efforts, Rizwana’s family decided they would still go ahead with their daughter’s marriage. Mukul and her OBC colleagues then turned to the Union Parishad for assistance in stopping the unlawful wedding.  In the end, their collaborative efforts proved successful. Mukul Jaan and her neighbours gave Rizwana a new chance in life.  She has resumed schooling and is now living happily and healthily.

The New HRLE 12-day Course: Learning to rediscover one’s potential

The original HRLE module – first introduced in 1986 when BRAC expanded its focus to encompass critical consciousness of the poor – consisted of a 22-day course for grassroots women from around the country to learn about basic laws relating to dowry, marriage, child marriage, divorce and land. With knowledge gained through the course, otherwise poor and vulnerable women became better able to protect themselves from societal exploitation and discrimination, and to take active roles in addressing local human rights violations.

Following each HRLE course, three of the best students form an OBC to put their legal literacy skills into practice. These groups act as grassroots-based human rights advocates, helping to prevent rights abuses that occur within their immediate communities. As of March 2013, a total of 3,794,398 women had undertaken the HRLE course.

With knowledge gained through the course, otherwise vulnerable women are able to take active roles in addressing local human rights violations.

BRAC’s Human Rights and Legal Aid Services (HRLS) programme has now rolled out countrywide a 12-day version of its HRLE course and the 22-day model is being phased out.  The intensive shorter course is distinct from its predecessor because of a shift in focus from legal literacy to rights articulation.  The 12-day course represents an innovative approach to legal and human rights education and targets grassroots communities across Bangladesh.

The HRLE curriculum draws upon real-life situations as a basis to discuss laws, policies, and procedures that support access to justice.

The course’s teaching methodology emphasizes problem-solving approaches to legal literacy, namely by positioning a rights-based curriculum within the social and economic context of its participants. HRLE students are encouraged to identify barriers preventing them from seeking justice and are guided to think strategically to overcome them.

Topics in the new curriculum include, for example, ‘my family, society and I’, ‘abuse’, ‘gender discrimination’ and ‘procedural legal terms’.  Classes also include exposure visits – to police stations, the government land office and the Union Parishad office – intended to demystify government bureaucracy and procedures that are essential to accessing legal support and justice.

The Barefoot Lawyers

Barefoot lawyers, known in Bengali as shebikas, teach the HRLE classes. Shebikas are critical leaders within their communities.  They are points of access whose presence enhances the sustainability of legal representation and awareness. Currently, 6,065 HRLE shebikas are volunteering with HRLS.

The course emphasizes problem-solving approaches to legal literacy – students are encouraged to identify barriers preventing them from seeking justice and are guided to think strategically to overcome them.

As most students in the course are illiterate, barefoot lawyers use simple, illustrated flip charts as a primary tool for delivering curricular content in their legal literacy classes. One of the primary props they use to engage participants in interactive sessions is a large poster titled ‘Ami Ke’ or ‘Who Am I’.

The poster shows a large circle, which is divided into three levels – or social strata – and coloured to emphasize each different tier. The outermost circle, coloured purple, represents the national, district, or Upazila level; the inner circle, coloured magenta, depicts the Union level; and the innermost circle, coloured green, covers the family or household level. Small picture cards showing men and women in various professions are also used as cues.

In an ideal HRLE class setting, a shebika will roll out the “Who Am I” poster in front of students sitting on mats in a semicircle. She will prompt some participants to place picture cards in each of the three circles on the poster according to feedback from the remainder of the class.

Once this process is complete, students are asked to place a white circular counter on the poster based on what they perceive is their individual social status. The HRLE shebika will then go around the class to learn the reasons behind students’ choices.

                                                          “Who Am I” poster displaying cue cards and counters

Who Am I Poster 1

The barefoot lawyer asks how participants think the people shown in the picture cards may have reached their chosen professions or positions in society. She also asks if the women in her class feel that they have the potential to reach any of the poster’s outer circles and brainstorms about barriers that may be preventing them from doing this.

The shebika supports the class to come up with solutions as to how society can aid them to improve their perceived social status. The shebika ends the class by motivating participants to value their work (even if they belong to the household level) and encourages them to continue to explore their own potential in the practical world.

The classes are taught on an hourly basis every day of the week. The shebikas travel from one village to another in assigned regions countrywide to conduct these sessions. They receive a total of BDT 35 per participant and teach a group of 22-25 women per class.

Designated HRLS field staff regularly visit HRLE classes so they can monitor the performance of the barefoot lawyers, interact with participants, and ensure effective use of class content and time. Cohorts of field-based HRLS trainers also conduct yearly refresher trainings for HRLE shebikas. These trainings are conducted in BRAC Learning Centres – the organisation’s nationwide training institutes – and serve to standardize the quality of the shebikas’ performance continually keeping them updated on current laws.

Who Am I Poster 2

The greatest challenge now lies in rolling out the HRLE curriculum for men.  This will require extensive planning and foresight around pilot areas, target populations and the induction of male HRLE volunteers to teach male participants.

It will also be necessary to conduct impact assessments of HRLS’ 12-day legal literacy curriculum, to determine scope for learning and to fill in gaps for smoother delivery of legal literacy services. With a dedicated workforce in place, HRLS is hopeful about a positive response to this inclusive and versatile nationwide approach to legal education and community awareness.

Through this path-breaking pedagogy, HRLS hopes to create independent thinkers who will be motivated to stake their claims and explore new gateways to legal empowerment and a just and equitable society.

Alea’s Story

Since training to become an HRLE barefoot lawyer in 1999, Alea has become a passionate human rights defender and an integral part of the HRLS programme. In addition to imparting legal literacy to rural women, she has been proactive in promoting mediation of family disputes and prevention of rights violations such as child marriage and domestic violence within her community.

Alea’s charisma and unique leadership qualities led her to election as Vice Chairman of the local government’s Union Parishad.  From this position, she has led dynamic advocacy against various rights abuses, including protests against child rape.  She has received much sharp criticism from locals for daring to act against culturally sensitive issues.  But Alea continues to battle the odds, working diligently to uphold rights and social development.

Today, Alea lives her life according to a belief that female liberty begins in one’s own home. From this position of empowering strength, she sees that women’s lives can change dramatically.


The HRLS Programme is the largest NGO-led legal aid programme in the world. It protects and promotes the human rights of poor and marginalised people through legal literacy, legal aid, and community mobilisation to realise legal empowerment. It works in 61 districts in Bangladesh. The programme is in its 27th year of operation.  For further reading about the programme please visit


August 9, 2013 | Namati