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Too Poor for Rights? Access to Justice for Poor Women in Bangladesh

By: Lena Hasle

One of the unique claims of the human rights framework and in particular international human rights law is its insistence that “al human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated” (UN doc. A/CONF.157/23, 1993) – applicable to all without discrimination based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, social origin, etc.  Despite widespread international acceptance of human rights norms, as signified by the large number of states that have ratified the main International human and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – their application remains elusive for many, and in particular for those living in poverty.  Indeed as stated by the previous High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, poverty is itself a “denial of a whole range of rights pertaining to the human being, based on each individual’s dignity and worth.”

Crucially from a human rights perspective, poverty is not only associated with denial of rights – but also the denial of the right to rights, as promoted and protected through an effective legal system.  Legal systems around the world discriminate against people who cannot afford legal representation, are illiterate and lack the power to influence legislative processes.

Strategies for improving poor people’s access to justice attempt to decrease the gap between the concept of universal human rights, and poor people’s enjoyment of these rights through experience.  Typically, these strategies are aimed at making the legal system more responsive to poor people’s needs by addressing hurdles that hinder their access to court.  This is a complex task and requires significant political commitment to be effective.  In recognition of this, increasing attention is also given to the non-formal justice system, including the extent to which traditional mechanisms for dispute resolution can play a role in promoting greater respect for human rights and increase access to justice.

This paper will focus on the experience of a specific group of rural poor in Bangladesh, who, with the assistance of Nagorik Uddyog (a human rights NGO), have sought justice through the non-formal justice system.  The question to be explored is whether the justice provided by informal systems is enforceable, and whether the agreed settlements exhibit “substantive justice” as measured against Bangladeshi law and international human rights standards.