Fazlul Huq grew up in Madaripur in southern Bangladesh, earned his law degree, experienced the struggle for independence and its aftermath, and began spending much of his time serving poor clients, especially the most vulnerable -- women and the Hindu minority -- pro bono. After handling 2000 such cases personally, he's now building Bangladesh's major rural legal rights/assistance effort. He's making the transition from local practitioner to leader in a national movement to enable the poor and weak to realize and exercise their rights.
The New Idea
Fazlul started bringing the law to those who most need it in rural Bangladesh well before the recent realization by many development organizations of its importance. He now is setting out to multiply his impact both by helping these organizations learn what he has learned and through significant new program experiments in Madaripur.Probably his most important innovation is the introduction of "barefoot lawyers." These paralegals work in the villages, respond to problems brought to the local headquarters towns, and help clients in court. They provide legal literacy training, bridge villagers with a panel of volunteer lawyers, and handle many matter themselves. They also help organize mediation. Not including mediation, last year Fazlul's team handled 100 new matters a day and 800 court proceedings.
Bengal has a long cultural tradition of invoking mediation to resolve disputes. After successful experimentation over the last several years, Fazlul is developing a major alternative to the expensive, slow adversarial courts dispute resolution program, drawing heavily on the Bengalis' familiarity with mediation. He's setting up, among other things, mediation committees in each village with a higher level committee for each group of ten villages. To the degree he's successful, he'll cut dispute resolution costs, delays, and divisiveness. He'll also be strengthening local communities' ability to manage their own lives.
He also plans intensive human rights training for 1000 eleventh and twelfth graders in selected weekly batches of 30-50. As they settle down many will become allies in the work of building public awareness of and insistence on these rights.
Right from the beginning Fazlul has focused on women suffering from arbitrary divorce and neglect, one of the poorest, most desperate groups in society. He has consequently developed special approaches and a sense for needed policy changes affecting these women.
He's now beginning actively to spread these and other elements in his approach, both in his region and nationally. One of his techniques is to invite development organizations across Bangladesh that have or are starting legal aid or human rights staffs to send him either potential paraprofessionals or starting lawyers (12 each now) for a year's apprenticeship working with him in Madaripur.
Bangladesh, one of the world's half dozen poorest countries, has a high illiteracy rate. Few, especially among the poor and weak, conceive of the law as a defense; for them it is a tool used by officials and the powerful for their own purposes.The view not only undermines the law, but is a major barrier to development because it is one of the main bars in the prison of psychological dependency. Once people learn that they have a right to be secure and to assert themselves, they have taken a major step towards taking charge of their lives.
In this overwhelmingly Muslim and rural country, women are especially dependent and vulnerable. Religious minorities, especially after the violence and flight brought by the struggle for independence from Pakistan in 1972, hardly feel more secure or assertive.
Fazlul started work case by case. He's now moving to a different, infinitely more highly leveraged strategy. He's trying to develop the most effective, low cost ways of reaching the millions upon millions of Bangladesh's rural poor.Fazlul is recruiting more and more volunteer lawyers. He's developing an expanding force of well organized, strongly motivated paraprofessionals, who are learning to handle more and more themselves. He's trying to back both these groups up with the growing group of recent high school graduates he's training. And he's developing simpler, quicker ways of resolving disputes.
Having honed a professional skill as an advocate for the poor, and then having developed a strategy that now allows him to handle several hundred thousand matters a year, which in turn serves as an impressive demonstration for others, Fazlul is now turning to the challenge of carrying his model to all Bangladesh's other districts.
When he was growing up in Madaripur, several unusual people helped start him on his course. Fazlul's father, a religious man of principle active in both the law and local public life, set an example and gave him his strong self-confidence. A bachelor veterinarian deeply interested in public issues and an admirer of the leaders of the struggle for independence from Britain spent hours and hours talking with him. And a childless, refined Hindu lady took him into her home almost as a member of the family without a mention that he was a Muslim.After his first year at Dhaka he went to complete his undergraduate education in Lahore, wanting to see the other half of what was then Pakistan. The West Pakistanis looked down on him as a Bengali, giving him the painful, lonely personal experience of being a minority. He returned to Dhaka for his law degree and then returned to Madaripur planning to practice law and perhaps enter politics.
However, by then the fission of Bengal from Pakistan was beginning, which soon led to the horrors of the war for Bangladesh's independence and the years of highly personalized, erratic rule that followed. Disillusioned with politics, he sought another path to strengthening the values he grew up believing and that were strongly reinforced as he became a man of the law.