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Tea garden clubs fill gaps for girls in India

© UNICEF India/2009/ Ferguson
Female labourers walk in Nahartoli Tea Estate, in Dibrugarh, Assam, India, where UNICEF-supported Adolescent Girls’ Clubs have been established in marginalised tea garden communities.

By Angela Walker

DIBRUGARH, India, 15 December 2009 – In the hills of Assam, a state in north eastern India, women scattered across the landscape pick more than 80 per cent of the country’s famous tea – largely by hand.

Tea communities in Assam represent about 20 per cent of the state’s population, but their residents are often marginalized and excluded. Few go to school, and the work is difficult. On some tea estates, workers must pick at least 20 kilos in order to make their daily wages. Most of the pickers are women.

Challenges for young girls

Life for women and their daughters is often hard on the tea estates. Janaswari Begum, 56, has been working on the Nahartoli Tea Estate for 30 years. But when asked if she wants her daughter, Sulekha, to follow in her footsteps into the fields, she shakes her head.

© UNICEF India/2009/ Ferguson
Rupali (L), age 21, and Nahija age 16, are members of the Adolescent Girls’ Club, at Nahartoli Tea Estate in Dibrugarh, Assam, India. Clubs meet weekly to focus on children’s issues, especially adolescent girls.

“I have done it, but I don’t want my kids to do it,” she said.

But despite hopes for a better future, difficult conditions persist for many girls here. “In the tea gardens, parents neglect their girls,” said Welfare Officer for Nahartoli Tea Estate Aghna Urang. “They don’t want to send them to school. They want to use them as baby sitters and cooks.”

Alcohol flows freely when the sun goes down on the plantations and as a result, drunken violence against women and their families is common. Girls in the tea gardens often marry as young as age 13.

Despite a national law that regulates the use of child labour, teen-aged girls often wind up working in the fields themselves.

Newfound confidence

On Assam’s tea estates, UNICEF is making strides to help girls change their lives. Along with its local partner, the Assam Branch of the Indian Tea Association (ABITA), UNICEF supports Adolescent Girls’ Clubs that provide a haven for young women. Their goal is to get teens to go to school and stay enrolled.

Begum’s daughter, Sulekha, is a leader of her plantation’s girls’ club. She says the club has given her a newfound confidence.

“I want to stand on my own feet,” said Sulekha. “I want to earn my own living. I want to teach the younger girls whatever I know.”

The girls meet on Sundays to crochet, decorate tunics with beads and chat with friends. They also learn important skills about health and hygiene.

The ‘best platform’ for girls

Helping girls to help themselves is a progressive method of change against the backdrop of tea estates. But it could also be the most effective.

“We felt the need to bring adolescent girls on board,” said head of UNICEF’s Assam office Jeroo Master. “You can see emerging leadership. The Adolescent Girls’ Clubs are acting as catalyst for change.”

Along with improvements in the club members lives, there is also evidence of institutional change on the plantations. Sulekha says the labour union on the plantation has actually approached the club members to help work with them to curb drinking and stop child marriages.

“The club is the best platform for us,” said Sulekha. “We will show what we can achieve together.”



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