IBA Pro Bono Award, sponsored by LexisNexis.

Monday 29 January 2024

Ishrat Hasan
Legal Inn, Dhaka

The need for pro bono work

Bangladesh is a country where it is difficult for poor people to access the court system and women and children are vulnerable as the society is patriarchal. From an early age, I dreamed of becoming an advocate for people who need support.

As a young lawyer, along with my regular work, I began trying my best to help the vulnerable in society through pro bono legal work. The Supreme Court of Bangladesh (‘the Court’) hears matters for the enforcement of fundamental rights. I noticed, in several areas, that the fundamental rights of citizens, and especially women and children, were being ignored. There are some legal provisions that are shockingly discriminatory and inconsistent with the constitution. This required bringing matters before the constitutional courts for enforcement of fundamental rights for women and children in Bangladesh.

Pro bono work

In a first pro bono matter, following the death of a mother beaten by a mob that left her two children motherless, I filed two separate writs with the Supreme Court. One claimed compensation for the children of the deceased woman and the second argued negligence by the government in not preventing her death. The Court has since issued five directives to prevent mob beatings and for perpetrators to be brought to justice.

In another pro bono matter, I questioned the constitutionality of section 112 of the Evidence Act 1872 which relates to birth during marriage. I argued that if the courts declare a child to be illegitimate, this leads to humiliation for that person throughout their lifetime. I further pleaded that those children born as a result of rape would face similar difficulties due to the existing provision and provided the example of children born during the 1971 liberation war. The Court responded positively to the pleadings and issued a ruling asking the government why section 112 could not be declared unconstitutional and why they would not be directed to amend it.

A sense of responsibility

Most of my pro bono work stems from the sense of responsibility that comes from my personal experiences. Two experiences have helped inspire me to take on pro bono matters.

One experience relates to there being no spaces for lactating mothers to feed their babies. As a legal practitioner in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, I needed to feed my new baby while engaged in work. Similarly, while on vacation and travelling with my nine-month-old baby, I had to wait five hours in an airport due to bad weather. There was no room to breastfeed my baby and I felt helpless and devastated. These experiences made me determined to take this issue before the Court and I petitioned in the name of my nine-month-old baby, arguing for the establishment of breast-feeding rooms in all public places in Bangladesh. After a long hearing, the Court ruled that such areas should be created. This ruling allowed nursing mothers, whose babies accompany them to work, to feed their children in private. Furthermore, in some workplaces, babies and children have been provided with a dedicated room where they can eat, play and sleep safely while their mothers work. Consequently, mothers are less stressed and are more productive at work, knowing their children are nearby.

Another experience relates to gender detection for unborn babies, especially regarding female fetuses. I receive a considerable number of allegations from women who are being subjected to physical and mental torture, domestic violence and attempted abortion simply for carrying a female fetus. As there is a preference for male babies in Bangladeshi society, if a woman finds out that the sex of the unborn child is female, it can lead to high levels of stress for the mother and negatively impact the baby. In extreme cases, mothers can face pressure from their family to have an abortion. In Bangladesh, gender detection is a great threat to pregnant women and their unborn babies, and I felt strongly that I needed to try and petition for this to be prohibited and so, I brought a suit in court. I claimed that such tests violate constitutional protections for gender equality and a baby’s right to life. Following a court ruling, a number of diagnostic centres and clinics have agreed to no longer offer gender detection. I believe that the total prohibition of gender detection in unborn fetuses will dramatically improve the conditions of women in Bangladesh.

My pro bono award journey

I was delighted to learn that I was the winner of the 2020 IBA Pro Bono Award. I was deeply touched by the kind words expressed and profoundly honoured to receive this prestigious award. I was surprised to learn that I was the first Bangladeshi lawyer to receive the award. Due to Covid-19, it was disappointing that the award ceremony was virtual in 2020, but I was able to attend the 2023 IBA Annual Conference and receive the award directly from esteemed colleagues at the IBA.

The award constitutes an international recognition of my pro bono work and has increased my courage to fight for justice, especially for women and children. I have a dream of working for women and children, not only in my country, but across borders and the IBA is a forum for sharing ideas and experiences and working together for a better world. Being the first Bangladeshi award winner, I firmly believe that this will inspire other lawyers in Bangladesh to become engaged in pro bono work, especially for the women and children of Bangladesh.