Anti-Discrimination Bill 2022: Can it give hope for a just society?
The much-awaited Anti-Discrimination Bill, 2022 was placed in parliament on April 5 by Law Minister Anisul Huq, which was then sent to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, requesting a report within 30 days. The bill is in keeping with Clauses 27, 28 and 29 of the constitution, which prohibit discrimination on the basis of class, caste, gender and religion, ensuring respect for human entity, equality and dignity of every citizen of Bangladesh.
Even though delayed, this move by the government has been received positively by human rights organisations who have been demanding such a law since 2008. It may be noted that the present government has been responsible for enacting a number of progressive laws, such as the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2009, the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2010, and the Rights and Protection of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2013.
The anti-discrimination bill clearly states that no one in the country will be discriminated on the basis of their caste, religion, ethnicity, language, age, gender, place of birth, profession or "untouchability." It further states that citizens cannot be deprived from getting services from government offices, statutory bodies and non-government organisations, nor can anyone be denied employment based on the above.
The parliament passes several laws in every session, most of which are related to the functioning of the state or to tighten control over various segments of society. However, a number of laws have been enacted in the last 15 years that are, in spirit, aimed at empowering the people of the country or protecting their human and fundamental rights, as enshrined in our constitution. The enactment of each of these laws has been preceded by active participation of citizens in raising demand and consistent advocacy by civil society organisations. The same is true for the anti-discrimination law. Human rights organisations and activists have been lobbying for its enactment since 2008, using various advocacy and policy influencing strategies.
The need for such a law arose through working directly with the Dalit and Harijan communities who, involved mostly with the profession of cleaning, are categorised by their low caste as "untouchables." Through the process of evidence-gathering and research, their powerlessness and the daily discrimination they face came to light. From trying to get admission in educational institutions to eating at a restaurant to attempting to find employment outside their cleaning profession, they are shunned, ostracised and humiliated, with no option to seek legal remedy.
A number of organisations such as Nagorik Uddyog, Manusher Jonno Foundation, Research Initiatives, Bangladesh, and Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) as well as the leaders of Dalit community took it upon themselves to create public opinion in favour for the law, which included countrywide consultations, mass mobilisation, signature campaign, media engagement, lobbying with policymakers, etc. In 2013, a draft was submitted to the Law Commission and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), to be sent to the law ministry. Meanwhile there was a general consensus that the scope of the law should be broadened to include all segments of society facing systemic discrimination, such as persons with disabilities, religious and ethnic minorities, sex workers, and transgender people.
Even though rights activists have greeted the government move positively, there remain a few areas of concern. For example, although the proposed law recognises different forms of discrimination, the remedial aspects are missing or too complicated to access. Moreover, it does not have any provisions for punishment as discrimination has not been criminalised. What it offers is more like an alternative dispute resolution, which will not serve the purpose, given the extent of discrimination these marginalised communities face.
The structure suggested for monitoring the implementation also does not give much assurance that an aggrieved person facing discrimination will get redressal. A national monitoring committee has been proposed, to be headed by a minister, comprising 15 secretaries or joint secretaries and three to four civil society members. Moreover, there is no representation from the communities who have most at stake. It is feared that this will end up becoming another top-heavy, ineffective bureaucratic structure. The parliamentary standing committee is urged to review these anomalies and consider the recommendations submitted by human rights organisations.
Any law is as good as its implementation, and therein lies the greatest challenge. There is little doubt that this law will likely meet the same fate as many other progressive laws. While certain laws get implemented in a hurry—even go beyond their mandates—laws that protect human and fundamental rights, those that empower citizens to demand transparency and accountability from the state, largely remain unimplemented. Same is the case with the international instruments and protocols that are signed with much enthusiasm but are often ignored or at best partially implemented.
The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act, 2010 was the result of years of women's rights movement. Unfortunately, in the last 12 years, few victims of domestic violence have received justice or compensation based on the law. The RTI Act is implemented to a limited extent. While the poor do get information pertaining to their livelihood, the law has not been used to challenge larger governance deficits at national levels.
The main problem lies in the complete lack of accountability at every level of service delivery. Moreover, there is no punishment for not doing the job one is supposed to. The most glaring example of this is trying to get justice for the women who are victims of violence. Starting from filing an FIR to getting medical tests done to the time it takes for an investigation officer (IO) to submit a report—the entire process is a mockery of existing rules, policies and procedure.
Another important point to be made here is the failure of civil society to monitor law implementation. Somehow, the energy and enthusiasm evident while pushing for law enactment is missing when it comes to following up with the implementation. Often, activists turn to other pressing issues, thinking their job is done. It must be remembered that legislation is only the first step of a long road towards ensuring the rights of people, especially those who are traditionally marginalised and powerless.
Finally, a law is only one of the tools to ensure rights. A much stronger commitment has to be made to build a discrimination-free, exploitation-free society where everyone has the same right to live in freedom, dignity and security. No law can ensure that unless we as a society work on issues of social harmony, social justice, celebration of diversity and acceptance of difference. We still don't know if the anti-discrimination law will fulfil the aspiration of millions of people who face discrimination every day. But this is only the first step; the rest will depend on our vision of a humane and just society.
Shaheen Anam is the executive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF).