Access to Justice​



Salish, a traditional alternative dispute resolution process at community level, is widely recognized in rural Bangladesh and is popular among rural poor. One of the big reasons of its popularity, community people can have easy access to Salish because of its dynamic and flexible nature. It could be defined as ‘informal village community hearing’ existing parallel to formal justice system over the generations in rural Bangladesh. Salish is supposed to lead to conciliation between the contesting parties. However, traditional Salish reflects gender hierarchy and often reinforces local power structure and religious dogmatism. On the other hand, the formal justice system, which is inherited by colonial rule, is complex in nature. Poor communities are not use to with formal justice system because it is highly bureaucratic, time and money consuming, and often corrupted.

Considering this situation, since 2004, NU has been working on Access to Justice programme aiming to improve access to justice of rural communities through human rights education, community mediation, and community legal services. Since then, NU has significant achievements that not only include improving poor men and women’s access to justice but also include in grassroots women’s mobility in Salish and Local Government Institutions (LGIs).

The justice sector of Bangladesh comprises two systems: the formal system and the informal system. The formal system includes the court administration, magistracy, police, and prosecution; whereas the informal system covers traditional community mediation (Shalish) which is generally known as Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). On the other hand, there are quasi-judicial provisions in the local government structure such as village courts, and arbitration councils. The formal justice system is supposed to be sufficient in providing justice to the citizens, but it is evident from the multiple studies and real-life experiences that the formal justice system could not achieve its goal in Bangladesh. The striking fact is that the accessibility of the poor and disadvantaged groups to this formal justice system is very limited.  According to the Bangladesh justice audit report of 2018, only 4% of victims go to the police, and 9% go to court. Due to the financial constraints and bureaucratic structure of the justice system, the poor and disadvantaged groups rarely can utilize the formal justice system. However, no segregated data has been found related to the scenario. Two major factors are hindering the formal justice systems to provide expected services to the citizens of Bangladesh: structural issues and socio-cultural factor-related challenges. These issues include the backlog of cases, lengthy legal procedures, insufficiency of resources, absence of accountability and good governance, and the prevalence of corruption. As a result, most people especially the poor and disadvantaged groups do not have access to the formal judiciary system to get legal remedies. Since the formal justice sector has failed to deliver justice for the underprivileged, they have looked for other informal alternatives. Most of the poor and vulnerable seek justice through several informal means such as community mediation.

Traditional mediation (Shalish) is the most popular informal way to resolve disputes at the community level. On the other hand, 30% of them prefer to resolve their disputes through traditional mediation (Shalish) as they think this process is more efficient in terms of time, money, and satisfaction. Shalish is an effective means of resolving local disputes in an amicable, cost-effective manner (the community members do not have to pay) whereby fractured relationships are restored. However, it is observed that this system is not functioning as expected due to political influence, patriarchal control, and non-conforming to human rights norms and standards. Existing mediations often try to impose decisions rather than negotiated agreements between disputants which resulting communities losing confidence in the Shalish system and women and disadvantaged groups do not get the benefit from the system rather their rights are usually undermined. As traditional community mediation is dominated by the male and elite in the community, women’s participation as mediators is very limited. Only three (3) elected women representatives of each union council to participate occasionally in the mediation process. However, there is no comprehensive study has been found regarding the context.  

Previous experience of Nagorik Uddyog

Improving access of marginalized and disadvantaged groups to justice mechanisms is one of the key programmatic areas of Nagorik Uddyog. In 1998, Nagorik Uddyog started working with the focus of democratizing traditional community mediation (Shalish) to improve the access of disadvantaged groups, especially the rural poor, to justice mechanisms. At that time, Nagorik Uddyog came to realize that the traditional community mediation (Shalish) is highly dominated by patriarchal values and has been deterring the access of women to this informal system of justice. Based on this learning and gathered experience, Nagorik Uddyog re-sharpened its focus and took initiative to engage women in community mediation at the community level from 2000 to 2004.

In 2004, Nagorik Uddyog started grounding new interventions such as providing human rights education for creating human and legal rights awareness among the disadvantaged groups at the grassroots level, leadership capacity building of disadvantaged women at the grassroots level to enable them to claim their legal rights through Shalish and forming grassroots mediation committees to make the people involved with Shalish committed and accountable.

In 2013, Nagorik Uddyog initiated a project titled Access to Justice through Community Legal Services (CLS)” to enable the marginalized people in their communities to have better access to legal and constitutional rights. The DFID-funded project came to end in 2017. The project addressed the whole range of community legal services, both institutional and non-institutional by strengthening their capacity and skills to facilitate access to justice for the community people. The project also contributed to transforming traditional community mediation (Shalish) into gender-sensitive and democratic through the involvement of the community people, especially women mediators. Another key contribution of the project was improving the local governance and making the Union Parishad functional by ensuring accountability and transparency through the formation of the Citizen Rights Group and activating them. The achievements and learning of the project inspired Nagorik Uddyog to intensify its development actions in the related focus.

It is important to mention that Nagorik Uddyog also does a have invaluable experience in implementing the project titled Improving Access to Justice Through Human Rights Education and Community Mediation” with the funding support by Bread for the World, Germany from August 2004. These projects have brought tangible impact on the life of the target beneficiaries with improved access to the state’s justice mechanism. In specific, the community people warmly accepted the project interventions. Especially the women showed lots of enthusiasm in the project work as community leaders. Community forum leaders both women and men proactively worked with poor, marginalized people to help them get better justice through mediation. According to the community people, the project activities helped them with knowledge of legal issues as well as the mediation process. 

In 2021, Nagorik Uddyog adopted the “Restorative Justice (RJ)” approach to increase access of vulnerable groups to the justice system through the community-based dispute resolution mechanism. Currently, Nagorik Uddyog has been implementing a project with a special focus on Restorative Justice with the funding support of GIZ-Bangladesh. The current phase of the project started on July 1, 2021, and will come to end on December 31, 2022. The project is being implemented in the Barisal district and Dhaka city corporation area. The learning from this approach inspires Nagorik Uddyog to scale up its activities as the outcomes of using the approach are quite promising.

Currently, Nagorik Uddyog has been implementing arrays of interventions under the programmatic area of “Improving Access to Justice” in different project locations in Bangladesh under two separate projects (BftW-funded project and GIZ- Bangladesh -funded project. The programmatic interventions are contributing to achieving SDG-16 (Peace, justice, and strong institutions) especially target 16.3 and its indicators 16.3.1 (Proportion of victims of violence in the previous 12 months who reported their victimization to competent authorities or other officially recognized conflict resolution mechanisms) and 16.3.3 (Proportion of the population who have experienced a dispute in the past two years and who accessed a formal or informal dispute resolution mechanism, by type of mechanism).

Development Goal

  • The project is contributing to the improvement of human rights and justice in Bangladesh, with a particular focus on women’s and disadvantaged peoples’ rights.

Broad Objectives

  • Objective 1: Poor and disadvantaged community members (especially women) in the rural project areas have been getting justice in line with the state laws, policies, and human rights standards.
  • Objective 2: A strengthened non-state actors (civil society, community leaders, RJMF members, elected people’s representatives, and like-minded CSOs) and state actors (government bodies, and law enforcement agencies) enforce human rights in Bangladesh.

Specific Objectives

  • Developed and strengthen Restorative Justice and Mediation Forum (RJMF) forums, paralegal and leadership;
  • Promoting gender sensitive mediation and provide legal aid to disadvantage women and girls;
  • Trained and capacity building multipliers of formerly established RJMF forums and paralegals.
  • Effective and functioning of RJMF members by increasing people’s participation and use of output;
  • Increased and intensified advocacy and networking on human rights, gender and justice issues at local and national level.

In order to achieve these objectives, NU has been strengthening community forums through faciliatating groups meetings; assisting groups and networks organizing community mediation (Salish); providing legal aid support through litigation and investigation and community legal counseling; organizing capacity building trainings for both staffs and community group members; facilitating to organize annual conference; and organizaing wareness raising programme at community level.

We believe that sustainability lies in community empowerment and the ability to claim and access equal rights. To make these happen, it is required to support them until they become capacitated and empowered. The core of the project is to empower the community by ensuring their gender proportionate participation in the local dispute resolution mechanisms. Moreover, the project will contribute to enhancing the capacity of the community people through disseminating knowledge, building skills, and raising awareness related to legal and human rights issues. It is important to mention that the project will challenge the stereotypical gender roles and norms through engaging women in informal justice mechanisms such as RJ sessions and mediations. As the project pursues the Rights-Based Approach (RBA), the community will have access to planning and implementing the project activities that will increase their engagement with the project and also make them empowered. It is essential to specify that the project is designed in a way that staff at area offices will work closely with the community people to plan and implement the project activities.

It is also expected that the local elected bodies especially the local councils will adopt the method of resolving local disputes promoted by the project as the project will engage them and works with them under different project activities. Therefore, sustainability will be ensured by a) empowering the community people with legal and human rights knowledge, b) strengthening the leadership capacity of women and disadvantaged groups through training, increasing their participation in dispute resolution sessions and community activism, c) adapting effective dispute resolution methods by the community, and d) effective stakeholder engagement including local government. However, it is difficult to change the social norms and standards, but it is essential for the sustainability of this kind of intervention.

We hope that the social norms and values regarding equality and dignity, developed among the community people as the result of our interventions will remain in the community to an extent. It will help them to claim their rights and justice. On the other hand, the community leaders and the administrative bodies along with elected people’s representatives will be more responsible to deliver the deserved services to the community in relation to justice, human rights, access to basic services, and gender justice. It is already in place to a certain extent in the proposed project areas due to our previous interventions. The proposed project will further enhance this change which will ensure the sustainability of the project interventions.

Access to justice