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Creating Social Impact Through Free Of Cost Legal Support In Bangladesh

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By Shaveena Anam:

In 2014, I joined iProbono, an organisation that enables lawyers and law students to use their skills for social good, to develop their work in Bangladesh. I was required to find lawyers, willing to provide pro bono legal support to civil society organisations. In this article, I appraise our progress and highlight some key achievements and contributions of the vibrant iProbono legal community in Bangladesh.

The term pro bono is derived from the Latin ‘pro bono publico’ which means ‘for the public good’. In the legal context, it is the provision of free legal services. With limited exposure to the country’s legal sector, my work and iProbono’s mission was met with scepticism and doubt from stakeholders. Initially, I was discouraged to learn how Bangladeshi lawyers, particularly those involved in the corporate sector, have little to no interest in social work and were unwilling to work for free.

Over the years, I found that my initial perception was deeply misinformed. Although there is no formal structure of pro bono in Bangladesh, there is an informal culture of providing free legal services to vulnerable clients. I met few social-minded lawyers who eagerly joined the iProbono community. They were keen to use their skills, knowledge, and resources to help people who had no recourse to high-quality legal advice and to make a difference.

Barrister Saqeb Mahbub, a senior associate at the law firm Mahbub and Company and an active member of iProbono’s legal community in Dhaka, has completed several pro bono projects for three different civil society organisations. One of these was Basha Enterprises, which employs women who were sex workers or victims of trafficking to create textiles, jewellery, and accessories. Originally registered as a for-profit company, the organisation faced certain limitations regarding the social impact they wanted to create. Saqeb Mahbub assisted them to register as a non-profit organisation to work alongside their social enterprise to combat trafficking and address additional needs of the women who worked for them.

There is a common misconception that pro bono legal services only involve litigation and providing legal support to underprivileged individuals or communities. iProbono’s model reveals that services like legal expertise in tax, drafting contracts, employment policies, and the formation and governance of organisations are extremely helpful to NGOs and social enterprises.

Our pro bono lawyers at Sadat Sarwat and Associates provided pro bono support to Drinkwell, an organisation that works to solve Bangladesh’s arsenic problem, and enhanced their operations by modifying their franchise agreements to suit the Bangladeshi context. Anita Ghazi, founder and partner of The Legal Circle, contributed over 200 pro bono hours to help Subarta Trust, an initiative that provides support to senior citizens, by giving advice and drafting legal documents to strengthen their services and impact. In these different ways, transactional pro bono support strengthens civil society organisations that work to improve the lives of those who are most vulnerable or marginalised in society.

Other than creating a social impact, there are professional benefits to working pro bono as the practice provides an exceptional opportunity for career growth. Law students gain invaluable experience and insight while working on pro bono projects. Young lawyers at early stages of their careers can gain practical experience and build essential skills. Providing pro bono services demonstrates a lawyer’s ethics and sense of responsibility as well as builds their profile. It also allows a law firm to expand and develop a network, enabling them to be contributors to Bangladesh’s development and social welfare.

Legal communities around the world recognise the potential of pro bono to address poverty and human rights violations, increase access to justice, and create a global social impact. Systematic structures of pro bono exist in other jurisdictions making it easier for lawyers to give back and foster the growth of access to justice, but this is yet to happen in Bangladesh. For example, in America, it is mandatory for lawyers to serve at least 50 hours of pro bono legal services annually. Singapore implemented mandatory annual pro bono reporting obligations and takes pro bono hours into account when assessing applications for senior counsel appointments. Thailand also incentivises pro bono lawyers through pro bono accolades and access to justice training. Cultivating a system of pro bono within Bangladesh has the potential for immense social impact while strengthening the legal sector.

More information about  iProbono’s work can be accessed here.

The author is iProbono’s Bangladesh Country Representative 

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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