Improving Girls’ Lives in Assam

Last month I had the opportunity to travel to Assam on a field trip to visit project sites involved in the UNICEF-ETP partnership programme, which is supporting young women in tea communities to better understand their rights and works with them and their communities to enable them to have more control over their lives and become agents of change within their communities. We hope in this way we can help protect these young women and other girls in the community from trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

It has been one year since I was in Guwahati to attend the launch of this programme and I was very excited to see what had been achieved a year on. Although we have read the progress reports produced by our colleagues at UNICEF and have been impressed by the range of work that has gone into this very ambitious programme, actually being in Assam to visit the sites where this project is being rolled out provided a flavour and a sense of validation that no progress report ever could.

In the lead up to the field trip my colleagues and I attended a 2 day conference organised by UNICEF and the National Law University and supported by ETP on the Plantation Labour Act, 1951 (the regulatory framework governing tea estates) and its impact on children’s rights. The conference was attended by senior representation of government, business, and NGOs and is leading to recommendations for improving the Plantation Labour Act and is one of several ways in which UNICEF is working with government to address the issue of vulnerability of children on tea estates. The two days of the conference set out the context and demonstrated clearly all the levels at which this project is working to bring about effective change – with policy makers, law enforcement, district administration, management, planters’ associations, and with the estate communities

Having spent the two days at the PLA Conference we travelled from Guwahati to Dibrugarh, the other end of Assam with UNICEF field staff who are instrumental in rolling out this project. We visited two estates where we had a chance to interact with the Adolescent Girls Groups (AGG) and the Child Protection Committees (CPC). I had anticipated that meeting with the adolescent girls groups would be extremely powerful but I was not prepared for exactly how moving and emotionally involved it was.

Our meeting was arranged at the estate school and one by one the girls all introduced themselves to us and we did the same. They had prepared a speech about their AGG in which they told us all about the range of training that they have received, confidence levels were high and engagement with social issues was very good.

At the first estate the group was asked the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” All of them were keen to respond and the list was long and varied, teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, a police officer, an actress, an air hostess were some of the replies we got. It was very heartening to learn that the girls on the plantations have big dreams and ambitions, but it was poignant that not a single one of them said she’d like to stay and work on the plantation.

We also heard from the girls about the extensive training they receive on protecting themselves from violence and abuse, health and hygiene, nutrition, education, and the importance of recreational activities. What was amazing was that they were equally comfortable talking about menstrual hygiene as they were about volleyball.

In the meeting at the second estate the girls were full of questions for us. Some of the things we were asked were:

  • Where are you from and why have you come here?
  • What are girls our age like in your city? What do they like to do?
  • Do they have Adolescent Girls Groups where you live?

Eventually after spending some time chatting with them, the girls said they had prepared a performance for us and so we stepped out of the classroom and in the schoolyard they treated us to a lovely Bihu dance performance in all their finery. They were keen that we join them and so we did – it was impossible not to, their enthusiasm was infectious and it all looked like such fun.

On day two of the trip we were very lucky to attend the district meet organised by the District Deputy Commissioner for the representatives from all the AGGs in Tinsukia district – here there is a total of 54 girls groups across 49 tea estates with a membership of 3775 girls. 350 of whom attended the meet on the 17th for which they had prepared a variety of performances – mostly singing and dancing and also a short street play about the issues that are tackled at the AGG meetings such as domestic violence, alcoholism, depression, abuse etc. What was striking about all the girls that day was their courage and confidence – every single one of them introduced herself to us.

This entire experience and interaction has been really rewarding but it also got me thinking about the future, and what lies ahead for this generation of tea estate children.

The fact is that the programme has a very strong foundation, an excellent team of experts who are passionate, enthusiastic, and hard working, a willing industry, and most importantly a community that is ripe and ready to embrace this sort of intervention. It is now up to all of us – the entire industry, the Government, and organisations like ETP and UNICEF to ensure that we continue to build on this work, continue to strengthen it to secure its longevity, otherwise we risk depriving thousands of young people in Assam’s tea communities of the opportunity to realise their dreams.