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Legal empowerment as a pathway out of poverty

examining BRAC's human rights strategy in tackling poverty

Sumaiya Islam


The denial of rights to the poor can no longer just be viewed as a human rights issue, but also must be accepted as what it is—the biggest development challenge of our times. With an emasculated legal identity that encompasses only certain rights, the poor have little security over their assets, income or their livelihoods. It is also important to emphasize that until the poor are engaged to demand and claim their rights, steps taken to address the symptoms of poverty such as hunger, illiteracy, disease etc. will remain only partially effective at best and the gains of poverty alleviation will be compromised by the reality of ever-increasing poverty creation.

Scholars and academics have long pointed out that in order to effectively tackle the specter of poverty, steps must be taken to diagnose and address its root causes rather than treat its symptoms. World leaders as well as grassroots actors are articulating clearly the inextricable linkages between poverty and injustice; and are recognizing that they are both dynamic in nature simultaneously depleted and refilled: even as some people move out of poverty, other people simultaneously fall into poverty. We must therefore take our focus and efforts for poverty reduction beyond simply raising people out of poverty and address the elements that go into the creation and perpetuation of poverty.

Development thinkers have long been discussing that the poverty pool is being Today, it is well understood that poverty originates out of disempowerment and in turn exacerbates this very phenomenon, creating a vicious cycle of sorts. In other words, not only is the inability of the poor to exercise their legal rights and access basic services, resources and opportunities a direct result of historical and political processes of subordination, but this disempowerment facilitates further subordination. An elementary example illustrates the point: corruption in the judiciary prevents the poor from accessing the courts. As a result, the judiciary becomes a domain controlled by the elite and privileged classes, who are therefore not held accountable to the law, and are free to continue discriminatory and exploitative practices.

It is also widely recognized that the lack of an efficient justice system not only restricts the exercise of citizen’s fundamental rights but also poor are unable to protect their assets and livelihoods process of law, judicial independence, equality and non-discrimination have, in the past few years, have moved beyond the confines of lawyers and courts and have become the focus of sustainable development discourse. versatile agenda addressing the question of human development in the broader domain. The concept of legal empowerment is recognized to respond to the realization that the rightsbased approach complemented by the utilization of law is a critical means of maintaining state accountability on human rights issues and is different from conventional rule of law discourse in that it does not focus on the “supply side” of the justice system—improving state services—but on giving resources to marginalized groups to enact change. This paper traces the broader impacts of legal empowerment strategies on the demand for justice and their implications for poverty reduction and human development. This paper also takes the NGO BRAC as a case study, assessing the effectiveness of incorporating legal empowerment initiatives into its human development and poverty reduction programs.

Publication Type(s)

Conference Paper

Ten Years of War Against Poverty Conference Papers

Conference: Ten Years of War Against Poverty


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