Around 20% of Assam's population (6.5 million) is directly associated with 800 large tea plantations. The tea garden community comprises multi-ethnic groups of workers and their dependents, including children. While the region is renowned for producing more than 50% of tea in India, the tea garden workers have been historically suppressed and alienated from mainstream development and record low progress on human development indicators, particularly in areas like education, health and sanitation, housing conditions, nutrition, and per capita income.
Years of planned exclusion coupled with lack of access to entitlements and social security have confined a large section of the tea plantation workers to intergenerational poverty. Recurring floods in the region further aggravates the dismal condition. Save the Children has been working with children and their families across 35 big tea plantations in Sonitpur, Biswanath and Dibrugarh districts of Assam since July 2014. Adolescent groups were formed in intervening tea gardens, and over the years, they have emerged as trained leaders on child rights & protection issues. One such story of a child leader is Radha Kurmi's.
Radha, 17, a student of class IX is a resident of Jungle Line, Lepetkatta Tea Estate, lives with her mother, father and two elder brothers. Her mother, Gangu Rajak* (35), is a daily wage earner, and her father, Mangal Rajak* (43), is a tea estate worker. Radha loves going to school. She is a part of the 20-member adolescent group in her tea estate. She was introduced to various aspects of child rights during a training session in 2019.
Since then, there has been no stopping her. She has been working extensively with children in her tea garden areas to educate them on child protection issues. She leads the children's group in her community and works closely with the Village Child Protection Committee as a child leader. As the group leader, she holds regular meetings to discuss various issues related to child rights. During one such meeting, the group decided to adopt a different approach and formed a theatre group. Through this medium, they wanted to sensitise communities on children's rights. Save the Children supported grooming the group to script street theatre and build awareness among children and the tea estate community.
During the pandemic, when children of tea workers were having trouble accessing their classes due to poor connectivity and financial reasons, Radha took it upon herself to ensure learning continuity. She brought up the matter with the local Panchayat. With their support, she enrolled eight boys and girls to school and mobilised the Panchayat to ensure that local teachers take physical classes at the village community hall by maintaining COVID appropriate behaviour.
Radha and her group also proactively prevented at least five child marriages with the support of the Village Child Protection Committee members. She also intervened when she found a girl, Asha, was being physically assaulted by her neighbours. Asha couldn't understand why they were treating her badly and blamed herself for the harassment that her mother was facing. The experience had left her deeply scarred.
"I was devastated when Asha shared her traumatic experience. But I knew what I had to do. I reached out to the Village Child Protection Committee to ensure necessary protection is given to Asha. It takes time to change the system, but that should not deter the healing process and empathise with the family going through trauma," articulated Radha with determination to resolve the issue.
She, along with Save the Children's Community Mobiliser, Manu, counselled Asha and her parents and lodged a complaint with the local police station. They also sought support from the Child Welfare Committee in the district.
Save the Children, with the support of the District Child Protection Unit and Village Child Protection Committee, ensured that a proper complaint was lodged regarding the case. The family is currently receiving ration as well as psycho-social support.
"Radha is like a Messiah to us, the way she listened to our crisis and took the decision to refer the case to the child protection committee, I am thankful to her. Her presence of mind and attitude is praiseworthy. I wish her good luck," said Asha's mother.
With Save the Children's help, Radha extended psychological support through telephonic conversation to little girls and their families on child protection issues. Radha makes it a point to give Asha a call every day, ask her about her well-being, and counsel her to continue her studies.
"To me, freedom means every child enjoying their rights to the fullest. That's why we are trying to sensitise our communities about various aspects of child rights; it is only through this we can develop as a nation," shares Radha.
Girls face greater risk of early marriage than boys. School closures and the discontinuation of education during the pandemic have exacerbated the risks of early marriage. Disruption in child protection and related services due to COVID-19 has further enhanced the risks of early marriage
Through empowering children and communities in tea plantations of Assam, Save the Children addresses abuse and exploitation of children. Tea producing companies and plantations, farmer producer organisations, unions and associations related to tea plantations are being sensitised on child rights. Child protection mechanisms at the district level are constantly being strengthened to address, refer and respond to cases of child labour, violence and abuse of children.
"Child leaders like Radha are our inspiration to work among communities and ensure every last child is protected," said Manu, Save the Children's Field Coordinator.