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Reading in the tea leaves: Increased early learning opportunities in tea gardens

© UNICEF/2010/Naser Siddique
Children enjoy their school experience in the tea gardens in Sylhet on 18 July 2010.

Sophie McNamara

29 January 2012, Shylet: The rolling green hills of Bangladesh’s tea gardens look idyllic and prosperous, but they are sites of serious disadvantage for tea workers. They are lagging behind in every indicators of human development.

A recent UNICEF study of 820 tea garden households found that 72 per cent fall below the absolute poverty line, compared with a national average of 38 per cent .  Educational indicators are also much lower in the tea gardens. For example, only 5 per cent of preschool age children attend preschool1 compared with an average of 23 per cent nationally .

The reasons for the poor educational indicators are varied. There are insufficient schools in tea gardens and many parents themselves are poorly educated and unaware of the value of education. JashimUddin, from Shishu Academy Moulvibazar, says the mindset of tea garden owners and managers also presents a challenge. “Some believe that if workers get education, they will leave the tea gardens,” says Jashim.

The Early Learning for Child Development (ELCD) project, supported by UNICEF and the Government’s Bangladesh Shishu Academy, took the first steps towards establishing early learning in tea gardens in 2008. As a result of different meetings with stakeholders, UNICEF conducted a rapid assessment of Mouvlibazar’s tea gardens in early 2009 to determine the availability of suitable facilities for learning centres. The ELCD project worked closely with the panchayet, the influential tea workers’ group, in each garden, to increase support for early learning. Once centres were established, early learning teachers also visited parents at home to increase their awareness of education.

Since January 2010, the ELCD project has operated 24 preschools in six tea gardens in Rajnagarupazila, Mouvlibazar, giving pre-school aged children in these areas their first access to age-appropriate early learning. As a result of the advocacy, JashimUddin has noticed some changes in managers’ attitudes. “Now they are thinking that an educated, literate worker will give more production than an illiterate worker,” says JashimUddin.

© UNICEF/2010/Naser Siddique
The Early Learning for Child Development (ELCD) project supported by UNICEF took the first steps towards establishing early learning in tea gardens in 2008.

Five early learning centres have opened in Mathiura District tea garden, reaching 150 students.
However, more than 170 preschool-aged children in this garden miss out, underscoring the need for more centres.

 Now that tea garden workers have seen the benefits of early learning, demand for the centres has grown.DoyalRajbar lives with his wife and two children, aged 5 and 10, in Mathiura garden.  All family members are illiterate. Doyal is disappointed that no centre has opened near his home. “I would send my boy to preschool but unfortunately we don’t have one nearby. It would be a blessing for us if a new centre opened on our [tea collecting] line,” says Doyal.

Sila, 5, has attended an early learning centre since January and her parents have already noticed that she has improved her ability to listen and follow instructions. “Sila has become more patient since attending. Before she didn’t listen to her mother,” says Sila’s father, Shubalal. Shubalal, who was born and raised in the garden and never went to primary school, says he knows more about the value of education following discussions with the early learning teacher. “Next year I will try to enrol Sila in primary school,” he says.



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