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BRAC, Human Rights and Legal Services Program (HRLS)

For the first part of our Brac internship we were taken to the HRLS (Human Rights and legal services) office of Brac in Rangpur, Bangladesh. The office is located just down the street from Bracs’ TARC center (Training and Resource Center) where we stayed during this portion of the internship. The buildings were surrounded by barbed a wire fence and we were led through the front gate where it opened up to a small complex of simple one room buildings. The buildings had multiple uses, training for new school teachers and the small office for the HRLS segment of Rangpur included.

Brac represents the ultra poor, most often women, in cases ranging from divorce to acid throwing incidents as well as other disputes over property, business or money. The Brac HRLS program offers many Bangladeshi women their only form of assistance in legal matters. Its one of the programs that I witnessed during the internship that illustrated Brac’s real contributes to Bangladeshi society.

After a short explanation of his job as a Brac lawyer a Bangladeshi women wearing her colorful clothing came in the room. She sat in a chair in front of the lawyers desk facing to the side. The seven of us foreigners are here to “watch” the HRLS program in action. The woman, named Rajia, explained that she was being pressured by her husband and his parents to pay dowry of 150,000 Taka. Dowry is illegal in Bangladesh for the last thirty years but because of the social stigma of divorce Rajia really wants to stay with her husband and start a family. For Bangladeshi woman the social contract implicit in marriage seems to be heavily focused on the creation a family. For Rajia creating a successful is so important that she is willing to persevere threw terrible mistreatment and abuse to fulfill this desire. Her new inlaws are the ones pushing the large dowry and Rajia has given in paying small sums of money to her husband every month even though he is rarely around and they don’t live together. She does this despite the fact she knows dowry is illegal in Bangladesh. It was obvious through her tone that she wants for her marriage to work. While i don’t understand Bengali I could feel the intensity of her voice when she spoke to the lawyer. To make the situation more confusing part of her marriage contract stipulates that the husband must pay the wife “bride money”, in her case 120,000 taka, which her husband has never paid. The “bridemoney” is completely legal and common in Bangladesh. A sort of reverse dowry, bride money is meant to be the nest egg that starts a new family. As I listen to her tell the lawyer her story I can feel the passion in her voice. Although i cant understand what she was saying she did look up at the interns at times while telling her story.

While I was uncomfortable at the beginning I began to feel telling her story to a group of willing listeners was a cathartic release for her. She speaks with a definite tone and I can tell we are dealing with a very strong woman. Her strength is evident by the fact that she is even willing to show up in the Brac office and ask for help. Although Raija works with an NGO in her village that deals with human rights she has found her way to the BRAC HRLS office because small town life is full of gossip. She felt more comfortable dealing with this issue in the next town over where she is less likely to be seen going to a lawyers office. The lawyer intently listened and took notes and appeared to fill in blanks on small stack of legal size papers in front of him. His next step to help solve this problem will be to contact the husband with a letter and request that he show up for ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) meeting to try and resolve the issue outside of the court system. Raija made it clear that she wants a resolution of the situation, not a divorce. She clearly wants the marriage to work and to have a proper family. All this despite the fact that her husband only convinced her to marry him by threatening to throw acid on her. She took this behavior as a sign of passion and love for her and excepted him as the best candidate for her future husband. The BRAC lawyer explained that if he cant get a response from the husband that eventually the case would get turned over to the courts. Raija would be represented by BRAC lawyers for free while the husband would need to retain a lawyer. Expensive in any country no doubt. The lawyer tells us that the threat of going to court seems to be enough to get most defendants to the ADR table. He us told that out of hundreds of cases he deals with almost all are successfully mediated through ADR. Only a handful end up in real court.

The HRLS program and Bracs’ TUP program (Targeting the Ultra Poor) were two of my favorite parts of the Brac services we have experienced. Both of these programs are offered for free at Brac’s expense. They are paid for by a combination of profits made by Bracs’ microfinance program and Bracs’ private investments in businesses as well as donations.

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