Position of the Manusher Jonno Foundation on the Anti-Discrimination Bill

The fundamental mandate of the Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) is to address issues of marginality and exclusion in the country. Since 2004, the MJF, with the support of UKaid, has been working with the Dalit/Harijan community to empower them to claim their rights themselves from service providers and gain access to all public institutions. Through its grassroots work, the MJF has found serious shreds of evidence that suggest their accessibility to institutions is limited and their position in society is degraded – negatively affecting both their current psychological and livelihood aspects. and future. Therefore, a strong demand came from the grassroots for there to be a specific law that could protect Dalit/Harijan from such discrimination and inhumane treatment. Apart from certain provisions of the Constitution, at present, there is no such comprehensive law that can remedy discrimination in Bangladesh.

The quintessence of the Anti-Discrimination Bill clearly states that discrimination based on caste, religion, ethnic origin, language, age, sex, place of birth, occupation or untouchability shall not be more ignored.

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In 2008, in such a scenario, the MJF convened a Dalit conference attended by representatives of civil society, research institutes, NGOs, Dalit-Harijan organizations and platforms, government officials and legal experts. At this conference, the then Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Justice advised to draft a law that encompasses the broader framework of discrimination and guarantees the freedoms of marginalized communities facing abuse and discrimination. To do this, legal experts believed that we should first engage all marginalized communities in the country and identify the nature of the discrimination they face in their lives. Based on these findings, as it was decided, we could draft a law to submit to the government.

After the conference, for the next two years, the MJF Rights of the Marginalized Theme conducted extensive nationwide consultation, mobilization and campaigning through the engagement of Dalit-Harijan and other marginalized communities. This program was carried out jointly by more than 15 organizations and platforms working for them. The MJF and its network also engaged the National Human Rights Commission and the Bangladesh Law Commission to have an anti-discrimination law drafted and passed by the government.

When drafting the law, similar legal frameworks were consulted, including those of India, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Interestingly, there was consensus that the scope of the law should be broadened, beyond the Dalit-Harijan community, to include all other segments of society facing systemic discrimination, such as people with disabilities, religious and ethnic minorities, sex workers, transgender people and others.

Subsequently, a comprehensive draft law was submitted to the Law Commission and the MJF subsequently kept track of the review and re-review process. In 2013, the bill was submitted to the Ministry of Justice.

After review, the Ministry of Justice proposed to make some revisions and modifications to the project. Again, in collaboration with the Law Commission, a revised text of the law was submitted to the Ministry of Law.

Then the next eight years saw constant advocacy and lobbying of the Ministry of Justice by the MJF and other leading NGOs including Nagorik Uddyog, Research Initiative Bangladesh and Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust.

Eventually, on April 5, 2022, the Honorable Minister of Justice tabled the long-awaited “Anti-Discrimination Bill, 2022” in parliament. This was then sent to the Parliamentary Standing Committee of the Department of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs for review and report. Immediately, the MJF collected a copy of the bill and did a thorough review by its legal experts. In the bill, the MJF found significant shortcomings and loopholes. On April 17, 2022, the MJF organized a webinar inviting all members of the said permanent parliamentary committee, civil society actors, grassroots members of marginalized communities and legal experts. The MJF presented its analysis of the bill, then sought the opinions of others. The chair of the standing committee welcomed this decision and asked the MJF to send the compiled recommendations given by the MJF as well as the webinar participants. Within days, all compiled recommendations were sent to all members of the Standing Committee. At present, the MJF has continued to pressure them, and they have already decided in principle to make the necessary revisions and changes to the bill.

The main recommendations to improve the bill are presented below:

(1) The Act is to be renamed the “Elimination of Discrimination Act, 2022” instead of the “Anti-Discrimination Act, 2022”. “Anti” is treated as a sensitive connotation.

(2) The preamble of the bill should include references to internationally accepted human rights instruments such as the ICCPR (on civil and political rights); ICESCR (on economic, social and cultural rights); CRC (on the rights of the child); CEDAW (on women’s rights); CPRD (on the rights of persons with disabilities), etc.

(3) Section 2 of the bill should include separate definitions of all marginalized communities.

(4) Section 3 should clarify (a) on what specific grounds a child may be denied access to school, and (b) what occupations and activities are to be considered illegal.

(5) Section 4 should consider (a) minimizing bureaucratic complexities in the structure and procedure for forming the monitoring committee, (b) incorporating representatives of CSOs and marginalized communities into the monitoring committee, and (c) to form the follow-up committee immediately after the adoption of the bill.

(6) Article 9 should guarantee a speedy trial procedure against any case of discrimination. The section should also provide for the initiation of criminal proceedings on the allegation of discrimination, since without criminal proceedings, a punishable measure cannot be taken against the person or persons who are proven to have discriminated under of the law.

(7) Article 7 should ensure the representation of marginalized communities in national and local committees to address the elimination of discrimination.

(8) Strong recommendations were also made in the rapid formulation of the rules after the adoption of the bill and the wider dissemination of the law.

The quintessence of the Anti-Discrimination Bill clearly states that discrimination based on caste, religion, ethnic origin, language, age, sex, place of birth, occupation or untouchability shall not be more ignored. It further states that citizens cannot be deprived of the services of government offices, statutory bodies and non-governmental organizations, and that no one can be denied employment because of the aforementioned identities. However, a law is only one of the tools to guarantee rights and privileges. Therefore, a much stronger commitment must be made to build a society free from discrimination and exploitation where everyone has the equal right to live in freedom, dignity and security.

The writer works at the Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) focusing on marginalized communities.

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