Bangladesh: Ensuring Access to Justice for Domestic Violence Survivors during COVID

Transparent, inclusive and responsive public service delivery is an integral part of sustainable development. It includes ensuring access to justice for all. In particular for survivors of domestic violence who often cannot seek justice out of fear of social repercussions and stigma. In Bangladesh’s context, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) encourages the country to address the gaps in public services needed to respond to the needs of domestic violence survivors. The goals targets focus on access to justice (target 16.3), developing effective and transparent institutions (target 16.6), and ensuring inclusive and responsive delivery of services.

The COVID 19 pandemic restrictions have made access to services difficult and have highlighted the gaps in resources available to combat domestic violence. With the government’s announcement of lockdown, courts shut and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) providing legal aid closed their offices. Local authorities and police became burdened with relief distribution. The already limited number of shelter homes stopped taking in new survivors due to a lack of testing kits and fear of COVID contamination. Lockdown measures also made it difficult for survivors to access justice through formal channels.  It is in this context that the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) undertook research. The aim was to understand how women survivors of domestic violence could access justice during the COVID 19 pandemic and the type of remedies they have obtained. We also examined how the different stakeholders have adapted their service delivery to the crisis. We analyzed 12 case studies of domestic violence survivors to understand their justice-seeking behaviour. A focus on the community level state institutions is crucial. It unpacks the transparency, inclusivity and responsiveness of the most availed services of domestic violence survivors in Bangladeshi villages trying to access justice during COVID 19. Therefore, we will share our findings of the popular rural local government elected bodies at the community level, called Union Parishad, and the police.

Transparency of State Level Institutions in the Community

The Union Parishad‘s (UP) involvement is a crucial stage of the justice journeys of domestic violence survivors in the community. Our research found that survivors reached out to the UP representatives, elected representatives and influential figures of the community before availing of other formal channels of justice (courts). At the local government level, the traditional shalishes (local arbitration) conducted by Union Parishad (UP) representatives generally follow informal processes and are influenced by social norms. The UP representatives consider running shalishes and reaching solutions as an essential part of their responsibilities. They consider themselves responsible for the survivors’ families, hold themselves accountable for decisions reached, and closely monitor all cases. However, both the UP representatives and the survivors often remain unaware of what is permissible for the UP under the law. UP representatives often compel survivors to ask for forgiveness from their in-laws in attempts of mediation. This common practice in shalishes is a reflection of social norms around marriage. It is symptomatic of them going beyond their jurisdiction. Besides the UP, approaching the police is another common justice-seeking strategy of survivors. Our research found that police rescued survivors from their in-laws, reunited survivors with their children or warned perpetrators. Yet, in some cases, survivors incurred out-of-pocket expenses to incentivize the authority to take prompt action when complaints were filed. In many instances, police went beyond its mandate and suggested survivors try mediation. It reflects the prevailing social norms that consider the “breaking of families” a matter of intense shame.

Increasing Inclusivity of State Institutions and Responsiveness

Institutions like the UP and police, which have traditionally been male-dominated, are gradually becoming inclusive. Our research found that both these institutions remained easily accessible to community members, even during the pandemic.

In the case of the UP, women are now able to speak out in the shalishes. They can put forward their demands, even if they feel that the male representatives do not understand them as well as women would. The police have recently established special desks for women, children, persons with disability and the elderly in 663 police stations and have tried to assign women Sub-Inspectors there.  They deal with complaints from violence survivors. However, one of the common barriers in both these institutions is their insensitivity to women’s needs. Some of our respondents complained about not receiving justice.

In spite of lesser mobility and lockdown restrictions, the services provided by institutions in the community level were not hampered much. Both the UP and police were active during the pandemic in delivering services at the community level.  Despite being busy with relief distribution, UP representatives conducted shalishes on a limited scale and responded to the emergency needs of violence survivors. Similarly, the police still attended domestic violence survivors. Their hotlines were also active.

What next?

Although the inclusiveness and responsiveness of these institutions were quite remarkable, more could be done. They could improve the transparency of their services. Elected representatives require more training in conducting mediation. They have to respect their formal mandate, national laws, HR principles. It is pivotal that they recognize women’s right to respect and dignity and a life free from violence. The police need greater orientation on handling domestic violence cases and protecting the rights of the complainants. The Citizens’ charter should be displayed publicly to inform people about the services available and their charges. Finally, the state should recognize domestic violence as an emergency. It deserves primary services to be transparent, effective and uninterrupted, even during disasters and pandemics.

Pragyna Mahpara is a Senior Research Associate, and Nuha Annoor Pabony and Fariha Tasnin are Research Associates in the Gender and Social Transformation cluster of BIGD.

The blog was originally posted in Southern Voice