Barefoot and…Speaking up for Her Rights
In Bangladesh, there are now 11,400 reasons to treat poor rural women fairly. They are the fleet of 'barefoot lawyers,' working all over the country to educate citizens, particularly women, about their rights.
Sharmin is a typical barefoot lawyer. A shy woman in her 30’s, Sharmin was married at age 14, despite the fact that child marriage is officially outlawed in the country. She applied for a loan from her village micro-credit organization to start a small handicraft business. The group, an NGO called BRAC agreed to make the loan if she agreed to take a free class in human rights and law.
The class met near her village for an hour and a half over 22 days. A woman called a shebika led a group of about twenty women in a discussion about areas of the law that affected them: constitutional law, land rights, Muslim and Hindu family law, Muslim and Hindu inheritance law, and criminal law.
At first, says Sumaiya Islam, who helps administer the program, Sharmin “just sat quietly off in the corner.” But as the classes progressed, she began asking a lot of questions. She spoke of her own daughter who was scheduled to be married at 15 and realized that she felt a duty to protect her daughter from the unhealthy kind of marriage she experienced.
Eventually, through her understanding that the law was on her side, Sharmin gathered the strength “not just to take a position against the marriage,” Islam says “but to protest the marriage, which meant standing up to her entire extended family.”
Sharmin succeeded in heading off her daughter’s early marriage. Afterward, she went on to continue training with BRAC to become a full-fledged legal shebika (a helper or nurturer in Sanskrit).
Since 1986, BRAC has been training women to be traveling paralegals in their communities. At any given time, there are about 600 participants in legal classes spread throughout 250 BRAC sites. They learn to handle crises, such as rape, acid throwing and domestic abuse incidents. They learn to counsel widows and others on land rights. They learn to survey land, so that they can prevent vulnerable citizens from being swindled by relatives, landlords and others. They also learn routine legal recording skills so they can register local marriages and births.
Today, Sharmin is no longer timid. Like other shebikas, she travels to local villages, informing women of their rights and helping them seek legal redress when necessary. Increasingly, she and other shebikas are drawing the attention of local magistrates and legislators about laws that need to be enforced or even adapted. They are making themselves heard.
Sharmin and others “have adopted a healthy behavior toward authority and power,” says Islam, “they no longer fear that power. Ultimately, it is about access to justice.”