By Angela Walker
DIBRUGARH, India, 27 August, 2009 – Row upon row of hip-high tea bushes stretch as far as the eye can see on the Nahartoli Tea Estate in the verdant northeast Indian state of Assam. Women dressed in colourful saris are dotted amongst the green.
They work with long conical baskets balanced on their backs, bent almost perpendicular to pluck the tender young leaves. Ropes tied around the tops of their heads keep the baskets securely attached.
Picking tea is considered women’s work on the plantation. Each worker must pick at least 20 kilos, or approximately three baskets full of tea, to earn her daily wage of 58 rupees, or $1.19 per day of backbreaking work. The women are wrapped in rubber aprons, despite the heat, to keep them dry from the damp leaves. Some wear japi, large saucer-shaped hats to protect themselves from the sun or rain.
Janaswari Begum has been working on the plantation for 30 of her 56 years. But when asked if she wants her daughter Sulekha to follow in her footsteps into the fields, she shakes her head.
“I have done it, but I don’t want my kids to do it,” she says as she continues to pick, tossing the leaves nonchalantly into the basket behind her. “She has got some education, and she can do something better – whatever she wants to do."
Emerging leaders keen to make a change, to make a difference
Sulekha is a leader of the plantation’s 56-member Adolescent Girls’ Club, which she says has given her a new found confidence. “I want to stand on my own feet,” she says.
“I want to earn my own living. I want to teach the younger girls whatever I know.”
Gayatri Medhi, programme manager for the child protection project with the Assam Branch of the Indian Tea Association (ABITA) which supports the club, says the group has produced a real change among the girls.
“Previously they were shy… Now they are different people. They know they are responsible for the development of their community and are recognized by all,” she says.
Eighty-eight per cent of India’s tea is grown in Assam. Tea communities represent about 20 per cent of the state’s population but they are often marginalized and excluded, says Jeroo Master, the head of UNICEF’s Assam office.
“As part of our mandate to seek out to the marginalized, we reached out to these communities,” Master explained. “We worked together to ensure that child rights in the tea gardens are fulfilled.”
UNICEF is partnering with ABITA to encourage the tea garden’s teenage girl population to go and stay in school.
“We felt the need to bring adolescent girls on board to provide peer pressure to try to get them back in school,” Master says. “You can see emerging leadership - It’s been a slow, steady process. The adolescent girls’ clubs are acting as catalysts for change.”
The tea plantation has 4,681 people living on it of which 980 make up the permanent work force. Another 600 temporary workers work on the plantation between May and October when the picking is at its peak.
The 700 hectares of land produce 2.1 million kilos of tea annually. Housing is provided, and workers and their families receive free medical care and subsidized food rations of rice and wheat.
Instilling the values and need to get educated
“We wanted to motivate their parents to send them to school,” said Aghna Urang, welfare officer for Nahartoli Tea Estate. “In the tea gardens, girls’ parents neglect their girls. They don’t want to send them to school. They want to use them as baby sitters and cooks.”
“If a girl is educated, she will be a good wife and a good mother,” he added. “She will educate her own children.”
Life for girls is often hard on the tea estates. The Plantations Labour Act of 1951 regulates against the use of child labour, but still teenage girls may end up working in the fields.
Homebrewed alcohol flows freely when the sun goes down on the plantations. Drunken violence against women and their families is common. Pornographic videos are readily available helping to fuel gender-based violence.
The Adolescent Girls’ Club provides a haven for the girls. Club members tutor drop-outs and encourage to them to go back to school. They also learn practical life skills like proper hygiene during menstruation, HIV protection and anaemia treatment, which affect many young women on the plantations.
“I love to see the changes they are going through,” Medhi says. “They know we won’t be there forever. We help them find solutions for themselves.”
Seventeen-year-old Nahiza Begum says club leaders have taught her about child rights and the importance of delaying marriage. Girls in the tea gardens have traditionally married as young at 13.
Nahiza herself is not in a rush to get married. “Life before marriage is much better,” she explains. “Once I get married it will be like living in a cage.”
The girls meet on Sundays to crochet, decorate kurta tunics with beads and sequins and sew baby clothes. But the real draw is the chance to chat with friends.
“I’ve got lots of friends here. We talk about everything,” Nahiza laughs. “There are some things I can’t talk about with my parents, but I can talk to my friends.”
“All the girls come together and share their concerns amongst themselves,” agrees Medhi. “They learn life skills they express their feelings. There are certain things they can’t talk to their parents about.”
Identifying the leaders of tomorrow
Sulekha says the girls are identifying the next generation of young leaders. 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,” Sulekha says. “We will show what we will achieve together.” “As a team, we are more powerful,” Nahiza adds. “We can approach anyone and everyone when we are together.”