The sounds of chatter and laughter drift across the tea garden in Tinsukia, Assam. More than two dozen young girls are attending their weekly Adolescent Girls’ Group meeting and are excited to see each other.
Today the girls are putting on a short play for their community. One of the girls dresses as an old man and bends over a walking stick, which generates shrieks of laughter from the audience.
But underneath the comedy the girls’ play has a serious message. Today they are tackling the issue of child marriage – something that is all too common in Assam. The audience of community members from the tea estate listen attentively as the girls demonstrate why a child should remain in school instead of getting married too young.
UNICEF, the Ethical Tea Partnership, and tea-management associations are working across 167 tea gardens in Assam to support Adolescent Girls’ Groups like this one.
The groups give girls from tea estates a forum to discuss the issues that affect them and to gain the knowledge and skills they need to stay safe and help lead change in their communities.
The girls often spend their sessions discussing the issues that affect them - from child marriage and trafficking to health and hygiene and nutrition. The girls also have regular visits from health and nutrition experts to teach them valuable life skills, which they then take home and share with their families.
One young girl, Kahimoti, is 16 years old and when she is not in school she spends her spare time going door to door in her community to raise awareness of the issues she learns about in her girls’ group. She feels it is important to share her knowledge and help other families on her tea estate.
The programme also supports each tea estate with its own Child Protection Committee. The committees meet regularly to discuss issues that affect children in their communities and every group includes a member of the Adolescent Girls’ Group to ensure their views are represented.
The Child Protection Committees are trained to identify and protect vulnerable children and intervene in any cases where they believe a child is at risk. One committee intervened in the case of a young girl, Bimala, who was reported to be working as a domestic servant at the age of 11 years old. The family she worked for had refused to let her return home and so the Child Protection Committee went to the house and used their training and knowledge of the law to ensure her release. Now Bimala is safe back home with her mother.
Adolescent Girls’ Groups and Child Protection Committees help keep more girls safe in tea communities in Assam and ensure they understand their rights. The programme is giving girls a voice and the confidence they need to shape a better future for themselves and lead change in their communities.
Also read: Working with Unicef - stories from Assam