During the years I spent working for UNICEF in India I had the opportunity to visit a number of tea communities to see what life was really like for the children and their families living there.
On these visits I would often sit in on the adolescent girl groups as it was the best way to get a true picture of their life and hear about their dreams for the future. The groups, which had been set up by UNICEF and its local partners, were designed to give young girls living in the communities a protective space where they could openly talk about issues affecting them.
Child protection issues, particularly for girls, are a huge challenge in India, especially in rural areas including those that grow and produce tea. More than 80 million children a year - 41% of the child population leave school without completing eight years of education. In addition 43% of girls are married before they are 18.
These peer groups are designed to give young girls the confidence they need to stand up for their rights – such as not being forced into a marriage– and ensure that they are better able to enjoy their childhood as every child should.
A centre point of a ground-breaking new partnership that we are launching with The Ethical Tea Partnership today is to expand these adolescent support groups across 350 communities in over 100 estates across 3 districts of Assam. This will lead to more than 25,000 girls being equipped with the knowledge and ‘life skills’ to help them secure a better future and reduce their vulnerability to violence, abuse, and exploitation. The project will also ensure that at least 10,000 other community members are trained and empowered to prevent child exploitation from happening in tea communities and so they better understand children’s rights.
UNICEF has been working in India, alongside the government, for over six decades to create and strengthen child protection structures and protect young people, particularly girls, from exploitation and abuse.
Our experience, tells us that it is only when grassroots community work is combined with a commitment by all the key stakeholders in the tea industry - the private and public sector, government, and the supply chain – to tackle the issue of exploitation and abuse that we really are in position to make a long term difference to the lives of these children and young people.
Our ambition through this multi-stakeholder approach and by working with state government and enforcement agencies is to strengthen child protection in Assam and prevent child labour and trafficking, changing the lives of thousands of children.
The difference this community engagement work can make to a girl’s future is best illustrated through stories from different visits I made to tea communities; the first was to a support group where the girls, who were no more than twelve to fifteen years of age, seemed to have no aspirations for the future or value in their own abilities.
I asked one girl what she wanted to be when she grew up and she said a domestic worker so I can travel to the city, wear nice clothes, and see big cars. But most of all she said, if I am a domestic worker I will be able to have three meals a day. The first thought for these girls was survival.
At the time of my visit this tea estate was not receiving any community support from UNICEF but in a contrast a group of young girls on a different estate who had been receiving peer education as well as life skills and confidence training for a year, were full of hope and dreams for their future.
They were setting up their own micro-finance system within the community so they could become more financially independent and support each other. And one mum told me her daughter never used to speak much at home but now, after attending the sessions, she had become very clear on her views and had not agreed to get married till she was 18.
When you give even the most vulnerable children and their families’ knowledge and a platform where they feel they can be heard, it allows them to dream and make changes in their life.