In recent years, paralegals have become a part of the justice chain in Myanmar, playing an increasingly important role in raising legal awareness and supporting access to justice for Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) survivors.
To advance justice, paralegals use different strategies that include public education to increase awareness of the law, advising clients on legal processes and options for pursuing remedies, mediating disputes, organizing collective action, or advocacy. They engage formal and customary institutions alike. Paralegals are driven by a strong sense of ensuring justice is attainable to all community members, especially women.
By fostering legal awareness in their communities, they promote empowerment at a grassroots level. They provide tailored solutions to legal problems using creative strategies, a range of skills and deep knowledge of local contexts. They are more cost-effective and accessible than most lawyers and some of them offer pro bono services.
However, paralegals face numerous challenges such as a lack of standardized training and professional standards, safety issues or an inability to fully exercise their mandate because of limited recognition of their role from formal justice actors.
“Since we are not lawyers”, says one of the experienced female paralegals interviewed under the IDLO Women's Access to Justice Project in Mandalay, “people often don’t respect us and it can be difficult to work with government departments. If there were a certificate of some kind that would provide us with an official ID card -like police and lawyers- this would provide us with more confidence and ability to work for justice.”
Supporting community paralegal programs in order to build their capacity and raise their profile as intermediaries between the formal justice system and communities is the focus of IDLO’s engagement in this field. For 16 months, IDLO partnered with MyJustice on a program funded by the European Union and implemented by the British Council, to strengthen local capacities for improved access to justice for women in Myanmar.
Under this project, IDLO has supported the work of Second Tap Root (STR), a Mandalay-based non-governmental organization made up of community paralegals. Through training to enhance the skills of its members and of the members of local paralegals’ networks, STR works to uphold the rights of women and young children and promote a peaceful society.
When asked what are the most common SGBV cases they see, the paralegals interviewed mentioned child rape and domestic violence. In such cases, their role can promote meaningful change as the paralegals themselves come from the communities they serve and are thus finely attuned to local contexts and needs.
An example of how impactful the work of paralegals can be on the ground is given by another experienced female paralegals interviewed. Describing her experience dealing with a case of child rape, she explains that she was able to successfully overcome the refusal of the police to open the case and was also able to obtain justice within 4 months of the opening of the case.
Paralegals provide a crucial role in supporting SGBV survivors at a grassroot level to achieve justice.