Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

The Rise of the NGO in Bangladesh: Lessons on Improving Access to Justice for Women and Religious Minorities

Academic journal article The George Washington International Law Review

The Rise of the NGO in Bangladesh: Lessons on Improving Access to Justice for Women and Religious Minorities

Article excerpt


In 1998 a devastating flood ravaged two-thirds of the small South Asian country of Bangladesh.1 The flood damaged one million homes, affected thirty million people, and claimed over 1,300 lives.2 With the government ill-equipped to handle the aftermath of the flooding, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), independent groups unaffiliated with the state, responded to government calls for aid.3 Numerous groups such as the British Red Cross, ChristianAid, and World Vision provided assistance, mostly in the form of food and shelter.4

The disaster response to the flood of 1998 is indicative of the high level of NGO participation in civil society in Bangladesh. From micro-credit loan programs to education to strategies of water-treatment, NGOs have found a niche for themselves in the gap between society and state, seeking to promote the welfare of the people through grass-roots initiatives and development programs.5 In a country where the unemployment rate hovers around 40 percent,6 NGOs also provide job opportunities to a lucky few.7 In short, NGOs play an indispensable role in partnering with the international aid community to bring much-needed resources to the country during times of devastation, as well as implementing health education and literacy programs. NGOs in Bangladesh are participating in grass-roots legal reform to target and empower the most vulnerable portions of the population, in the hopes that such reform will provide at least a satisfactory solution to disputes where none was previously available.

Despite the success of NGOs in improving access to justice for women and the poor, the question remains when and how the government will assume responsibility for perpetuating such reforms on both the national and local levels. The country's history of constitutional revisionism threatens to upset not only the integrity of the constitution itself, but also the uniform and just application of law.8 In a country whose fight for independence was fueled by an intense desire to rid itself of oppression and political corruption, access to the public justice system is limited to the economic elite.9 Meanwhile, the vast majority of the population, including women and religious minorities who are generally unable to curry favor with the government, remain vulnerable to abuse and discrimination and without a voice to seek protection for their constitutional rights.10

This Note discusses the challenges of fostering and protecting the rule of law in a country where constitutional integrity has been seriously undermined by successive military regimes, focusing particularly on the lack of equal protection under the law for women and religious minorities.11 Next, it examines the historical idiosyncrasies and identifies characteristics of Bangladesh that make it especially suited for an in-depth case study of progressive government and NGO coexistence.12 It then identifies the connection between the volatile evolution of the country and its constitution and the weaknesses of its legal system, specifically in the area of individual constitutional rights.13 Finally, this Note explores the benefits that NGOs provide in increasing the Bangladeshi people's access to the justice system, focusing particularly on women and religious minorities.14 It also highlights the potential danger of assigning the primary role of legal reform to NGOs rather than the government, which should be the ultimate protector of individual rights.15


A. Economic Climate and the Role of NGOs

Bangladesh is one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world.16 As of 2005 the estimated population of Bangladesh was approximately 144 million people in a country roughly the size of the state of Iowa.17 On top of population pressures, the country suffers from public health epidemics and devastating natural disasters.18 Naturally occurring arsenic, for example, contaminates much of the country's water supply, and arsenic poisoning has led to health problems such as weakened immune systems and death among a sizable portion of the population. …

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