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Gardens of disparity

Tea estate managements in Assam collaborate with the UN to promote gender equality. Child marriage is common among the socially excluded tea estate communities including ex-tea estate communities.

Winds of change are sweeping the rather isolated but self-contained labour communities within the tea gardens in Assam. For the first time, the tea estate managements have joined hands with the UNICEF to address issues of gender discrimination including child marriage and promoting the rights of the child.

“Child marriage often results in girls leaving schools, it impacts their health and early motherhood results in anaemia as the body is not mature enough to deal with marriage and motherhood,” Jenema Patia, community mobiliser of Muskaan Girls Club in Namroop Tea Estate. With a membership of 60 adolescent girls, the Club is hugely popular. “We come here every Sunday to discuss our issues including child marriage and try to find solutions and convince elders in the community that child marriage is not good for girls,” she adds.

This group saved a 17- year-old girl who was one of their members, from being thrown out from her house by her parents after she was spotted by her brother talking to a boy. The brother threatened to report the incident at home, and fearing admonition from the family, the girl spent the night alone in a tea garden. When she was brought home the next morning, the word spread like wild fire that she had eloped with the man. “The girl tried her best to explain the situation but the parents would just not believe her and wanted her out from the house for bringing a bad name to the family. It was because of our intervention that she is still at home and now wants to enrol in a school,” Jenema explained.

Tea cultivation is a predominant occupation in Assam and Dibrugarh district accounts for nearly 55 per cent of the tea estates in the State. Most of the workers are descendants of 19th and 20th century tribal migrants from Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand and West Bengal who live in well demarcated labour lines within the estates as closed communities. Even after retirement from active employment, they continue to live close to their labour lines and follow the same customs and traditions as the rest of the community.

While Dibrugarh has a lower prevalence of child marriage compared to the State as a whole, the practice has been observed to be commonly adopted by the socially excluded tea estate communities including ex-tea estate communities. A study conducted by the Assam Branch of the Indian Tea Association (ABITA) in 2006 across 50 tea estates indicated that one fourth of the total respondents felt it was appropriate for girls to marry between the ages of 14 to 18 years. Besides generic factors which contribute to child marriage across the country, lack of education facilities (beyond primary schooling provided by the managements), availability of employment opportunities at an early age (women could get employed as early as 10 years for plucking of tea leaves and boys at 15 years) and the common practice of elopement among the young boys and girls were also cited as the reasons for early marriage.

In 2006, gaining access to communities living inside the tea estates was a major challenge and it could be obtained through ABITA. The UNICEF adopted a two pronged strategy with ABITA and set up the Adolescent Girls Clubs to create an atmosphere of openness where parents and the girls themselves were comfortable in discussing their issues with their peers. One of the key issues during meetings is child marriage and possible solutions to prevent it. There have been instances where club members who have had specific information on child marriage taking place in the community have successfully counselled family members against it. Between 2008 and 2010, 144 child marriage cases were reported by the Adolescent Girls Clubs in Dibrugarh and the members played an important role in preventing around 12 marriages by counselling. “The numbers may not be high but this is just a beginning of the process but the number could have been much more than 144,” Vedprakash Gautam, Child Protection Officer, Assam Field Office, UNICEF said.

“The tea estates management have also introduced changes in their practice and we now no longer extend loans to families where girls are married early,” Sandeep Ghosh, secretary of ABITA said. But this is always not successful, as the families often get loans from banks or can approach money-lenders that often add to their financial burden. It was through the Girls Club that a case of sexual abuse was also brought to the notice wherein a young girl was being sexually assaulted by her uncle with whom she was living. Once it became public, the girl was sent back to her mother. While no action has been taken on the erring uncle so far UNICEF hopes that ABITA would proactively take up the matter so that it is a deterrent, Mr Gautam said. In addition to AGCs, UNICEF also runs Young Child Survival Programme for mother and child health, hand wash programme for better hygiene and sanitation and several nutrition-based programmes in these tea estates.

Read the original article on The Hindu.