CIVICUS speaks about the state of civic space and the rights of excluded groups in Bangladesh with Shahanur Islam, founder secretary general of JusticeMakers Bangladesh (JMBD) and founder president of JMBD in France.
JMBD is a human rights organisation working against all forms of discrimination and impunity for violence against ethnic, religious, social and sexual minorities and victims of torture, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearance and organised violence, including women and children. It provides legal support to victims and advocates for justice and human rights through research, awareness-raising campaigns and collaboration with various stakeholders, including other civil society groups, government agencies and international organisations.
What are the conditions for civil society in Bangladesh?
Civil society in Bangladesh has historically played significant roles in advocating for social, political and human rights issues. However, recent years have brought about numerous challenges and restrictions.
The regulatory framework is restrictive. Civil society organisations (CSOs) must obtain registration and approval from government authorities to operate legally. This process is both lengthy and complex, and criticism of the government’s activities and policies can make obtaining permission difficult.
On top of government regulations on registration and reporting, the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Ordinance, the Digital Security Act and other laws have been used to limit the activities and funding of CSOs. The government has also imposed limits and increased oversight of funds received from international sources.
Additionally, we have seen instances of government scrutiny and heightened restrictions on CSOs, especially those involved in politically sensitive activities or that criticise government policies. Civil society often finds itself unable to speak freely due to continuous pressure and harassment from the government.
Civil society’s relationship with government is characterised by a mixture of collaboration and tension. In some areas there is collaboration, with CSOs and the government working together on development projects and social initiatives on issues such as disaster relief, education, healthcare and poverty alleviation. However, CSOs involved in human rights advocacy, governance and issues related to democracy, the rule of law and transparency encounter challenges and friction with the government. This often manifests as legal restrictions, a delegitimising narrative and harassment.
How does JusticeMakers work to defend human rights?
JMBD engages in a comprehensive range of activities aimed at promoting human rights, advocating for justice and providing support to victims of human rights abuses.
We provide direct legal aid to victims, including to secure the release of people from custody and file cases against perpetrators, particularly against law enforcement agencies. We offer legal counselling to victims of human rights violations and empower them with legal knowledge, informing them about laws interest litigation to address the needs of people who lack access to justice due to economic challenges and lack of legal knowledge.
We carry out fact-finding investigations to verify allegations of human rights abuses. The information gathered is used to prepare impartial reports that are shared with the authorities and also to issue urgent appeals on both the national and international levels. We engage in advocacy, calling for the ratification of international covenants and protocols and the removal of reservations to them.
We also conduct research to monitor the human rights situation, maintain a documentation centre and publish reports, research papers and books. We spread information about human rights through newsletters, leaflets, posters, stickers and handbills. We stage public events such as human chains, rallies and roundtable meetings to share views with professionals and the authorities.
Capacity building being one of our priorities, we offer training, seminars and workshops for people including staff, professionals, students and survivors. We actively engage in networking with other human rights organisations, local and foreign embassies, journalists and activists, and collaborate with United Nations human rights bodies.
What are the most pressing concerns of LGBTQI+ people in Bangladesh?
Same-sex sexual activity is criminalised in Bangladesh under section 377 of the Penal Code. This creates an environment of legal vulnerability and can lead to harassment and discrimination.
Criminalisation also contributes to social stigma and reinforces existing societal norms, conservative cultural values and religious beliefs that foster negative attitudes towards LGBTQI+ people. As a result, many experience rejection and alienation from their families and communities.
Stigma also legitimises the violence LGBTQI+ people face, coming from both state and non-state sources. There are hate crimes, including physical and sexual violence, and victims often encounter reluctance from law enforcement agencies to take their complaints seriously.
LGBTQI+ people lack legal recognition and protection and cannot enjoy rights that other people take for granted. They are not allowed to marry and therefore cannot access rights and benefits associated with marriage. Transgender people are prohibited from changing their sex through surgery.
Due to discrimination and prejudice, LGBTQI+ people often struggle to find and maintain employment. Economic exclusion leads to poverty and limited access to social services. Fear of discrimination and judgment by medical professionals can also result in LGBTQI+ people not seeking healthcare. This results in inadequate medical care, including gender-affirming treatment for transgender people.
Lack of visibility and representation in media and public discourse further contributes to the marginalisation of LGBTQI+ people. LGBTQI+ people typically turn to online spaces, but these are not free from risks. There have been numerous instances of online harassment, outing and threats targeting people who express their sexual orientation or gender identity online.
Legal restrictions and social stigma make advocacy for LGBTQI+ rights challenging. Organisations and activists working for LGBTQI+ rights face legal barriers, limited access to funding and security risks.
How is JusticeMakers seeking to address the challenges Bangladeshi LGBTQI+ people face?
A small volunteer-based organisation, JMBD does as much as we can to address the challenges faced by LGBTQI+ people. We provide direct legal aid, which includes securing the release of criminalised LGBTQI+ people from custody, offering them legal counselling and advice and filing cases against the perpetrators of crimes committed against them.
We also refer LGBTQI+ victims to counselling and mental health services tailored to address the unique challenges they face. These services provide a safe and understanding environment conducive to tackling the mental health challenges that are exacerbated by discrimination and stigma.
Through ongoing monitoring and research, JMBD gathers data on the challenges faced by LGBTQI+ people in Bangladesh. We are the only organisation systematically monitoring, documenting and disseminating information on violence against LGBTQI+ people in Bangladesh.
We conduct fact-finding investigations on specific issues of violence against LGBTQI+ people and publish annual reports. The collected information serves as a foundation for building legal cases, issuing press statements and urgent appeals, advocating for policy change and designing campaigns.
JMBD actively advocates for the repeal of section 377 of the Penal Code and the legal recognition of LGBTQI+ people. We advocate for laws banning so-called ‘conversion therapies’ and guidelines for gender-affirming surgery. Our advocacy includes engagement with international human rights organisations, diplomatic missions and others who can influence the Bangladeshi government.
Through social media, news media, workshops, seminars and public events, we inform policymakers and the public about the need for equal rights and protection. We also play a vital role by informing LGBTQI+ people about existing legislation, constitutional rights and international human rights instruments. This is achieved through legal awareness programmes.
We foster collaboration among LGBTQI+, human rights and feminist groups and other advocacy organisations. This collaborative effort seeks to amplify LGBTQI+ voices and influence and strengthen our collective impact.
Has there been any recent progress?
In recent years, the government of Bangladesh has taken commendable steps to enhance social protection and the inclusion of people with diverse gender identities. However, despite these efforts, persecution, harassment and discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community have continued and indeed escalated. LGBTQI+ people and activists have been subjected to threats, violence and unjust arrests solely on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
A pivotal moment came in 2013, when the government recognised the existence of the Hijra (transgender) community in the census and official documents. In 2014, the Ministry of Social Welfare issued a gazette notification on transgender rights. Substantial progress occurred in 2018 when amendments to the Voter List Act of 2009 enabled citizens to select Hijra as a third gender category on voter registration forms. Additionally, since 2013 the Ministry has introduced a range of livelihood schemes targeted at the Hijra community. However, no legislation or policy was issued to prohibit gender identity-based discrimination.
And notably, advances were limited to the transgender community. No progress was made in relation to the recognition and rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and intersex people.
LGBTQI+ people often experience harassment in public spaces and workplaces, and while existing laws may provide some recourse for LGBTQI+ victims of physical assault, there remains a glaring gap when it comes to addressing cases of verbal or sexual harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity. There are no mandated safeguards against sexual harassment of LGBTQI+ people in workplaces and educational institutions.
In sum, while there have been meaningful steps towards the recognition and inclusion of transgender people, there is still urgent need for comprehensive legal frameworks and policies that explicitly safeguard the rights of all LGBTQI+ people.
Have you faced repercussions for the work you do?
As a Bangladeshi human rights defender, lawyer and citizen journalist advocating for the rights of ethnic, religious, social and sexual minorities and victims of violence and human rights violations, I have confronted deeply unsettling experiences, including recurrent threats, intimidation, physical assaults and malicious framing in a fabricated legal case.
In August 2020 I was physically assaulted at the Naogaon district courthouse by a group of Islamic extremists who tried to abduct me and possibly kill me. I sustained serious injuries and had to be hospitalised, but prompt intervention by lawyers and clerks present prevented my abduction.
Three further incidents happened in 2023 alone. In February, an officer from the police Special Branch requested comprehensive information about my wife, child, mother, mother-in-law and siblings, as well as myself. This officer even went so far as to contact one of my cousins, delving into aspects of our education, professions, national ID card and passport details, ages, addresses, political affiliations, activities perceived to be against the government and more. The officer also probed into my current international residence, anticipated date of return to Bangladesh, reasons for staying abroad, financial support, work pertaining to advancing LGBTQI+ rights and my advocacy for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Bangladesh.
Then in June, someone using the pseudonym ‘Mon Day’ initiated a malicious campaign against me on a Facebook group known for its extremist views. This campaign sought to discredit and silence me by branding me as an enemy of Islam. False allegations were concocted, asserting that I was furthering a 'western agenda’ to legitimise homosexuality. Disturbingly, this campaign also called for the prohibition of JMBD.
Most recently, in the evening of 11 July, a Special Branch sub-inspector visited my residence in Bangladesh. He again requested an extensive array of information about my family members and myself, including my travel history.
In sum, my family and I continue to face harassment due to my human rights advocacy. This weighs heavily on our minds, yet we remain resolute in our determination to advance justice, equality and human rights.
What international support does JusticeMakers receive, and what further support do you need?
Since its inception, JMBD has received invaluable support from international networks and CSOs, as well as from dedicated human rights defenders. We have benefited from capacity-building training and increased visibility on the international stage.
To effectively continue our activities, JMBD needs further support in various forms.
It’s paramount for our long-term operations that we secure stable and sustainable funding. Diverse funding streams and the cultivation of relationships with donors who share an interest in human rights and justice issues are crucial.
We are actively seeking partnerships with international donors, foundations, governments and CSOs. These collaborations can potentially magnify the impact of our work. They can provide us access to valuable resources, specialised expertise and a broader audience.
Our team is particularly eager to access specialised training, workshops and resources to bolster our skills and knowledge. This encompasses legal training, strategic advocacy techniques, effective fundraising strategies and advanced communication skills – all of which would greatly strengthen the organisation’s effectiveness to fulfil our mission.
Support from international partners, including through our inclusion in international events, can elevate the visibility of JusticeMakers’ work, helping to draw attention to pressing human rights issues and building momentum for change. Support from international partners is also particularly needed in areas such as the development of effective communication strategies, leveraging technology for impactful advocacy and optimising social media platforms.
All these forms of support are key to our continued success. Collaboration across borders fortifies our capacities, amplifies our impact and enables us to bring about meaningful change.
Civic space in Bangladesh is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.