Improving the lives of women, children and young people living on tea estates in Assam, amid a global pandemic
By Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, Representative, UNICEF India and Jenny Costelloe, Executive Director at the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP)
11th March 2021
In 2018, the UNICEF-ETP Improving Lives programme was launched to build on UNICEF and ETP’s work to support women, children and young people living in the tea estates in Assam, India. Families living in tea communities face a number of systemic issues, including limited access to healthcare, education and hygiene facilities, as well as poor nutrition and inadequate child protection services. The ‘Improving Lives’ programme was set up in response to these issues, in 205 tea estates – a quarter of all the tea estates in Assam – working end-to-end in the supply chain to drive sustainable change for children.
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, the Improving Lives programme team, like everyone else, had to adapt. Not only did we need to adapt services to comply with lockdown restrictions, we also needed to be certain that we were doing everything we could to keep families safe from the virus and its consequences.
Prevention was key to keeping families and children safe. Government implemented quarantine centres were established for anyone entering the tea estates and there was access to free COVID-19 testing and treatment for positive cases, which was vital in keeping case numbers low. Building on our existing sanitation work, Covid-appropriate behaviours were communicated to raise awareness of the virus and to protect community members, and families were also able to uphold safe sanitation processes by utilising the portable hand washing units, with 4,946 established across the 205 tea estates.
During lockdown, online learning was unfortunately not an option for many of the children and young people living in the tea estates, because of their limited access to technology. We focused on programmes for self-learning with take-home learning materials, through which we were able to reach 20,000 children and young people. Utilising TV and community radio were other routes which helped to reach children whose right to an education was compromised by the pandemic. For those children and young people who did have access to smartphones, whether their own or their parents’, we promoted ‘communication chains’ to pass on learning activities.
It was also crucial that we engaged children within our activity. One way we did this was by empowering young people to act as changemakers, for example by encouraging them to take on a key role within their community for disseminating information on good hygiene practices to help protect families. Not only did this build the confidence of young people, it ultimately led to them becoming respected individuals in their communities.
Muskan is a great example of this – she took on the role of Community Sanitation Messenger and conducted weekly visits in her community to monitor cleanliness and share messages on safe sanitation practices.
Muskan said she was “proud to be a part of a local revolution”.
COVID-19 has had a significant negative impact on the mental health of children and young people, so a support network was set up. Sustainable support was put in place to provide psycho-social support by training 3,375 child protection personnel; this has helped many of the affected feel better equipped to cope, and have some normalcy return to their lives.
One year on from the start of the pandemic, one of the key lessons we’ve learnt is that we must continue to strengthen the resilience of communities, to help protect them in the face of pandemics, and in the face of other crises, such as climate change. This is something we’re working hard to achieve through the Improving Lives programme, and it’s vital for us to continue working with the communities in tea estates to achieve this. By working in partnership, we are one crucial step closer to realising the ambition that children, young people and women living in tea estates in Assam can survive, thrive and fulfil their full potential.