I’m really pleased to announce a ground-breaking new partnership between Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) and UNICEF that will improve the lives of thousands of children and young people living in tea communities in Assam, and reduce their vulnerability to exploitation and trafficking.

Indian tea is crucial to most tea blends and Assam is a key region, important to both the domestic and international tea markets. Like many other rural communities, tea communities in Assam face many challenges, particularly in relation to child protection. More than 80 million Indian children a year - 41% of the child population leave school without completing eight years of education, and 43% of girls are married before they are 18.

ETP has been working in India for many years and we have become increasingly aware of some of the more hidden issues facing tea communities, including the vulnerability of young people to trafficking and offers of work in cities, which turn out to be highly exploitative.

Assam Children PlayingOur organisation exists to improve the sustainability of the tea sector, the lives and livelihoods of workers and smallholder farmers, and the environment in which tea is produced. Over the years, ETP has been tackling deeper and more complex problems, and while trafficking is outside our expertise, given our position within the sector we felt we could and should be part of the solution.

The partnership with UNICEF is the result of deep discussions with our networks in India and internationally about the best way of supporting change. The programme will enable interventions to happen at all the different levels required to keep young people safe from exploitation and improve their future opportunities.

The three-year project, which is supported and funded by IDH the Sustainable Trade Initiative; ETP members: Tesco, OTG[1] (Meßmer), Tata Global Beverages (Tetley, Tata Tea), and Taylors of Harrogate (Yorkshire Tea); and Typhoo, will work with families in 350 communities across more than 100 tea estates of Assam. Watch the video here.

As UNICEF’s Anuradha Chandran explains in her blog ultimately this partnership 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. UNICEF will work with national and regional government and enforcement agencies to strengthen child protection and crack down on trafficking in Assam.

The response of tea companies, retailers and our long-standing partner, IDH the Sustainable Trade Initiative, to support work on issues which could be perceived as ‘too difficult to deal with’, has enabled us to mobilise this strong consortium in a relatively short amount of time, something that makes me very proud. Special mention must go to Tesco (the first international retailer to join ETP), who played a key role in convening the partnership, as described in Giles Bolton’s blog on the Guardian Sustainable Business Hub.

UNICEF has been working in India for over sixty years, enabling them to work closely with government to improve child protection. Previous work to improve the health and well being of young women on tea estates, supported by Twinings and the Assam Branch of the Indian Tea Association, has provided UNICEF with good experience and understanding of the Assam tea sector. With UNICEF’s experience and expertise and ETP’s deep and long-standing relationships in Assam, I am confident that the project will get off to a good start in India in October. I am greatly looking forward to learning from it and seeing the changes it brings over the next three years.

[1] Ostfriesische Tee Gesellschaft - Germany’s leading tea company