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Women & power: mediating community justice in rural Bangladesh

Women & power: mediating community justice in rural Bangladesh

By Craig Valters

In rural Bangladesh, women have historically been excluded from participating in traditional justice processes – the shalish. Women rarely attend their own hearings, let alone act as mediators. Our new study in Rangpur, in northern Bangladesh, suggests some of this may be changing for the better. Yet this is far from a done deal – women’s participation in these public spaces remains contested and limited.

What’s changed?

One national NGO, Nagorik Uddyog (Citizen’s Initiative), has supported the development of a new model of shalish, which seeks to combine traditional understandings of justice with norms embedded in Bangladeshi citizen’s constitutional and legal rights. Typically, women make up a third of the mediators present and there are clear attempts by Nagorik Uddyog to give them space to speak. In addition to these efforts, village courts in UNDP project areas now require that at least one woman sits on all cases involving women and minors.

How has this happened?

Firstly, improvements in the role of women in dispute resolution has come on the back of historical institutional and legal changes. For example, local government reforms in 1997 introduced quotas for women’s participation via direct elections, embedding their numerical (if not substantive) participation. Then, a 2013 amendment to the Village Court Act mandated that a woman be present during cases involving women and minors. The same women who participate in local politics often take up these positions.

Secondly, NGOs have strategically negotiated community power relations to improve women’s access to community justice. The work of Nagorik Uddyog is particularly interesting because they have been building women’s leadership capabilities for decades, in part through creating networks of women leaders and offering training opportunities. Their facilitation of an alternative shalish provides a space for these women to use their skills. The organisation also seeks to legitimise women’s participation locally through co-opting religious leaders, politicians, and senior community figures to endorse their model.

Just small steps?

Yet women’s access to, and influence in, these forums remains limited. In part, progress comes down to women’s personal and collective desire to engage in public decision-making. Clearly not all women can, or want to, participate. The nature of their participation comes down to a mix of family dynamics, political connection, household economy, education, and the women’s networks they are a part of. Much depends on whether women are perceived by themselves and others as having a ‘voice’ or ‘an ability to speak’. While much has rightly been made of progressive shifts in women’s social status in Bangladesh, we found that the space to speak in public forums remained closed off.

The dominance of elite (predominantly male) interests on political, social, and economic public and private decision-making limits the progress that can be made. For example, the participation of women in community dispute resolution tends to be restricted to ‘women’s issues’, which excludes land and property disputes. In interviews with female mediators and during mediation sessions, the language of gender equality appeared to be avoided in favour of appearing confident, logical, and aware of the law. This allowed women to highlight deeply gendered issues such as child marriage or domestic violence in a way that is perceived as non-confrontational.

What needs to happen next?

International organisations and grassroots organisations can contribute to improvements in women’s participation in public spaces. Four lessons on how to do that well emerge from this case study:

Community engagement should be sustained and sensitive

There is often a significant time lag from when individual women participate as mediators in these forums, and when they feel it is seen as socially acceptable. Women leaders we spoke to had suffered insults, the spreading of rumours, a loss of social status – and even violence – before being accepted as mediators. International development programmes need to acknowledge, and attempt to mitigate, the negative effects of ‘empowerment’ processes, rather than blindly assuming change happens without contestation.

Organisations should work with women and men to shift the rules of the game at the community level

The dominance of males in family and political life in rural communities means their engagement is essential to creating opportunities for engagement in the public space and shifting social norms for women. However, like women, the men we discussed these issues with came from diverse backgrounds and held different opinions. Even if they hold progressive gender views, they are themselves held back from implementing changes because of pervasive social norms in the community. Working with and supporting them is important too.

Understand the relationship between different problems

International organisations and grassroots workers need to understand the underlying causes of weak or non-existent participation in justice forums. For example, women’s continued exclusion from active participation in justice forums may be tied to their rights to land and property. During our research we spoke to a mediator called Shumitra, who when asked why she didn’t work on land cases replied succinctly: ‘It might be because we have less experience with land […] as a woman I do not own any land, so how do I resolve a land case?!’

Internationals need to build trusting relationships with grassroots organisations

There is a need for a ‘light footprint’ approach to supporting women’s leadership, which is modest about the role aid can play in facilitating social change. Yet at the same time, donors need to truly understand who they should work with in order to ensure nuanced, locally-led programmes which take into account the very real risks women face.


This study was conducted as part of a broader research programme on women and power at the Overseas Development Institute. The synthesis for this research can be found here.

Craig Valters is a research officer for the Overseas Development Institute, where he specialises in security, justice and gender in South and South East Asia. He also focuses on how aid organisations can learn and adapt to the complex contexts they work in. You can follow him on Twitter @craigvalters.

Featured image: women leaders listen as NGO-facilitated dispute resolution takes place in Rangpur, Bangladesh. Photo credit: Akash Photography.

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