Making village court gender-friendly:
An indispensable pathway to governance
Munir Uddin Shamim
For me, seeking justice from the Union Parishad (UP) and Shalish committee is more useful even though the verdict is not made in favour of me, because they do not require much time and money' said a woman of a Hindu community from a remote village of Barguna district while she was talking in a focus group discussion (FGD) on women's access to justice. The sincere impression of this village woman is indeed a powerful evidence to pronounce the importance, uniqueness and beauty of our traditional dispute resolution system. Bangladesh, particularly the rural society has had a long tradition of informal dispute resolution involving primarily elder male members of community. This system is widely known as Shalish. Gram Adalot or Village Court at UP level is not a new phenomenon. It is rather a continuation of our long tradition of resolving trifle issues quickly in an informal manner at the local level. In fact, Gram Adalot was established with the spirit of formalizing and institutionalizing this traditional informal dispute resolution process. Although Shalish had existed here as the oldest form of dispute resolution, there was no formal state-led rural justice system under British Raj. The history of formal rural justice institution started its journey with enactment of the Bengal Village Self Government Act in 1919. This Act initiated a Union Court to deal with minor criminal and civil cases. During Pakistan period, conciliation courts were established through the Conciliation Courts Ordinance 1961 to deal with petty criminal activities and civil disputes. This system had continued its functions till it was replaced by the Village Court through promulgation of the Village Court Ordinance 1976. In the year of 2006, this Act was replaced by a new Act named 'the Village Court Act (VCA) 2006 by the parliament. Functions of the existing Village Court (VC) are operational under this Act. It works under the control of Union Parishad. As mentioned earlier, it deals with both minor criminal cases and civil disputes. In both cases, value of the property or amount claimed should not be more than twenty five thousand taka. The main purpose of VC is to provide a rapid restorative judicial service to the local people in a relatively informal atmosphere.
In the context of Bangladesh, having a functional Village Court system is very crucial for many reasons. Despite rapid and remarkable growth in urbanization, Bangladesh is even now rural in nature. According to a WB report 71.9% of the total population lives in rural areas. Existing sex ratio of the country (100.3 as per census 2011) clearly indicates that country's women folk shares 50% of the total population. As said by a UNDP report, 42.3% of rural population lives below the national poverty line. Among them, women are more vulnerable, marginalized and deprived due to patriarchal socio-economic structure. Therefore, this is a great challenge for the state to provide a simple, low-cost, easily reachable and comfortable justice system to the majority of people, especially rural women and disadvantaged groups. As access to justice is a pre condition for sustainable development, country's target for development cannot be achieved unless an effective, less complicated judicial service is made available at the local levels. In this respect, a gender sensitive Village Court could be a vital option as it is the lowest level of formal justice institution in Bangladesh. It is easily accessible to the people because of its location and semi-formal character.
It is evident from a sample survey conducted by South Asia Partnership-Bangladesh, a national NGO, among 2000 grassroots women of coastal areas that more than three quarter of the respondents preferred Village Court and Shalish to other formal justice institutions. Among 2349 respondents in a study by an UNDP-run project, 97% expressed their opinion that VC was useful due to 'speeding settlement within the locality (65%), easily approachable (70%) and lesser cost (81%)'.
Huge numbers of pending cases in upper and lower judiciary have created a fertile land for demanding a functional Village Court system. A report by Law Commission revealed that as of 1, January 2010, there were 293,901 pending cases in the High Court division, 9,375 in the appellate division and 1,525,889 in the lower judiciary, which means that near about two million cases remain pending in country's formal justice institutions. In such an alarming situation, VC should be an alternative to reduce backlog of cases. In a recent speech in a gala event on VC the Prime Minister has reemphasized on securing justice for poor and disadvantaged people through an efficient and effective village court system. She also expected that Village Court in Bangladesh would be a model for other countries in resolving disputes in a peaceful atmosphere (The Daily Star 9 June 12). LGED is implementing a pilot project on activating VC in 500 UPs of 77 Upazillas under 17 districts. Government's wholehearted eagerness for activation of VC is visible in its constant efforts over the years but it should be made clear that VC cannot guarantee justice if women, a half of total population, are kept away from meaningful participation in its process. 'Why'- let us illustrate it very briefly.
A UNDP report published in 2010 identified 26 types of incidences that frequently occurred in the village areas of Bangladesh, among them, at least 11 types of disputes including land litigation, family conflict, dispute between couples, quarrel with nieghbours, divorce and dowry problems were directly related to women. Although it is observed that women preferred a settlement of dispute through shalish and VC, both institutions are still male-dominated, patriarchal and lees sensitized towards women. As a result, women's participation in VC is very poor and insignificant. In most cases, their role is strictly limited to the role of passive service receivers without having perfect voice. My series of field visits in Satkhira, Madaripur, Bogra and Netrokona districts conducted under GIZ-MOWCA run project on Promotion of Legal and Social Empowerment of Women revealed the same picture of poor participation by women. Major reasons that I had observed behind women's poor participation were non-cooperative attitudes by male counterparts, unwillingness to accept women as leader, lack of confidence in women's leadership, lack of capacity among female UP members and shalishker, absence of social security and most commonly patriarchal practices across the society. 'Parties involved in dispute do not nominate female as their representative in VC because they thought woman could not be able to bring verdict in favour of them'. 'As women are traditionally considered weak, less knowledgeable and it is believed that issues like dispute resolution should not be dealt with by women, people do not choose women for VC panel. Therefore, we as Chairpersons of UP have nothing to do to include woman in the panel' said a Chairperson in FGD in Satkhira. Some other vital factors hindering women's participation are primarily related to patriarchal social structure, which include women's traditional gender roles like domestic and reproductive works, care giving activities for family members, low level of education and restricted social mobility imposed by religious and social norms. 'Time is also an important issue as conducting VC requires a long time that women cannot offer due to their roles in family' said a male participant in FGD in Madaripur. 'If Bou (daughter in law) is involved in conducting VC, who then will cook for us, which is her prime responsibility' commented another participant in the same FGD.
Limitation of VCA 2006 is another cause of women's poor participation. It has not kept any specific provision to include women in its five-member panel even though the issues are directly related to women. It counts women simply as passive service receiver as opposed to see their active roles. As per VCA 2006, a VC consists of elected Chairperson of the respective UP and four members. Each party involved in dispute nominates two representatives, one of them should be a member of UP. Since it does not say anything about female representation, nobody in general wants women as their representative although women have been in UP as elected members since 1997. However, there is good news. The Government through its Activating Village Courts project has taken an initiative to amend VC Act, 2006 to make it more functional and effective. The proposed amendment has made women's representation in the panel of VC compulsory only when it involves the interest of woman or child. This is definitely a one step progress towards women empowerment, at the same time, it reflects on traditional idea of women's participation through restricting their roles only to the woman and child-related issues. It will reinforce existing patriarchal notion of gender roles. In this respect, the new Act should keep a mandatory provision for at least 2 women, one by each party, in a five-member VC panel, even though the issue is not directly related to the interest of women and children. It will contribute towards accelerating transformation of women's roles from passive service receivers to active service bearers, which will gradually change traditional mindset of society. In addition, initiatives need to be taken to make procedures of VC gender sensitive and women-friendly. It should be mentioned hear that sometimes the issues of women-friendliness or gender sensitiveness are misunderstood and misinterpreted. A gender-friendly justice system never refers to giving verdict in favour of women. It rather emphasizes on creating an enabling environment for both men and women considering particular context in which they live. It requires providing a congenial atmosphere so that service receivers irrespective of their sex could participate in the process with a perfect voice. There are some issues especially family matters that need to be kept in private. In some cases, woman may not want to express her issues in public. We all need to come forward to establish a gender-friendly VC, which will eventually lead to promote governance and justice not only for women but also for men at grassroots level.
Munir Uddin Shamim, Gender Expert working with the Institute of Governance Studies at BRAC University.