Change-maker stories from North Bengal

By Indrani Chakraborty | May 10, 2021 | Asia | Freedom from Violence & Exploitation

Children living in the tea gardens of India grow up on the margins of society and can be easy prey for traffickers. With help from GFC partner Rural Aid, they are finding the power to protect themselves and change the trajectory of their lives.

Life in the tea gardens

While the export-oriented Indian tea industry is more than 180 years old, it is far from stable. This has serious consequences for tea workers, who depend on this labor-intensive industry to survive.

Overall, 80% of tea workers are women, and most belong to Adivasi (tribal) communities. Most tea workers live with their families inside tea gardens, where the tea is cultivated.

Since the beginning of this century, there has been a steady trend of tea garden closures in the sub-Himalayan area of North Bengal. In addition, a number of tea gardens in this region are “sick,” meaning they are not operating regularly. In some months, there is work in these gardens, and in other months, there is none, leaving tea workers and their families in precarious circumstances.

The effects of tea garden closure or “sickness” fall directly on tea garden workers and their family members, especially their children, who are already vulnerable because they belong to socially and economically marginalized sectors of society.

Children attending a session on child rights

Children attending a Rural Aid session on child rights. © Rural Aid

This situation has left these young people with almost no economic options and has paved the way for organized trafficking groups to lure children and youth under the pretext of job opportunities.

The lockdown in spring 2020 caused by the COVID-19 outbreak has added to their misery. Before the pandemic, some workers from closed tea gardens migrated to other states. Others used to go out of the garden every day to work as day laborers.

During lockdown, the migrants had to return to their home, and the present situation does not allow them to go back to work in other states. With no way to earn an income, families are more likely to fall prey to trafficking and exploitation.

Girls in tea garden communities are vulnerable to a range of child protection issues. They have been forced to drop out of school, sold off as child brides, and trafficked to neighboring states as child laborers to work under slavery conditions.

Hundreds of tribal girls, mostly teenagers, have gone missing in the past few years from closed and “sick” tea gardens. In addition to poverty, a crucial underlying cause is gender inequality, as girls are considered inferior because of their socially defined roles.

Empowering children and youth to protect themselves

Rural Aid, a Global Fund for Children partner, has been working with children and youth in the Dooars region for over 10 years.

Children campaigning against child abuse

Children campaigning against child abuse. © Rural Aid

Hearing numerous stories of brutal exploitation of missing and trafficked children by traffickers, malkins (brothel managers) in red-light districts, and employers in factories, and interacting with survivors helped Rural Aid to realize the importance of listening to children and youth and involving them in finding solutions to prevent child trafficking.

Through its Learning Centers in the tea gardens, Rural Aid helps children aged 11 to 18 with their schoolwork and teaches them about child rights and child protection, preparing them to become peer educators and, ultimately, leaders in their community on issues such as trafficking, hazardous labor, and domestic violence.

Rural Aid has also set up children’s groups and youth groups in the closed and “sick” tea gardens in the Alipurduar District of West Bengal in order to empower these young people as active participants in their own development, in their recovery from abuse and exploitation, and in protecting themselves from hazardous situations. The children’s groups include a series of sessions on child rights, which builds the children’s self-esteem, provides them with accurate information, and makes sure that their voices are heard, valued, and taken seriously.

Making a stand for safety

Rural Aid feels that the best way to empower children is to provide spaces for them to address challenges and plan for the future. Therefore, the organization worked with the children to create a risk map of their communities and draw up risk mitigation strategies.

The children of the Khushi (Happy) children’s group of the Raimatang tea garden of Alipurduar have already taken a significant step toward their own safety. Local youth regularly gather in a large playground to engage in substance and alcohol abuse. When the girls return from their schools or Learning Centers, they face physical and sexual abuse by the addicted youth. This has been an ongoing problem. Until recently, there were no streetlights in the tea gardens, and their absence increased this threat to the girls. Cases of sexual violence against the girls have resulted in the restriction of girls’ mobility, girls dropping out of school, early marriage, and stigmatization of survivors.

Children enjoying their achievement beneath a new solar streetlight

Children enjoying their achievement beneath one of the new solar streetlights. © Rural Aid

To address this issue, the children’s group wrote an application explaining the situation and submitted it to the local government to request the installation of streetlights to ensure their safety.

After a few weeks, government officials inspected the area, listened to the children, and installed four solar streetlights. The girls now feel safer walking to and from their homes in the evening, and the members of the children’s group are more confident because they understand that active participation can make a difference in the world around them. This positive experience has helped the children to build resilience and develop their capacity to thrive.

Building a new future

With mentorship from Rural Aid, children and youth have started to challenge gender discrimination in their own lives as well. Nishita* (age 19), Roma* (age 18), and Surya* (age 15) are three sisters living in the Bhatkawa tea garden, which, as a “sick” tea garden, is often closed. They have been brought up by their mother, who is a tea garden worker.

Giving birth to three daughters was considered a curse, and as a result, their mother faced severe domestic violence. One day, their father deserted them, leaving all the responsibilities of bringing up the children with their mother.

In spite of myriad challenges, their mother never stopped supporting their education. The eldest daughter is in college now, and the other two are in the higher classes in school. However, during the COVID-19 lockdown, it became impossible for them to go to school, and like the other children in the tea gardens, they did not have access to smartphones or internet to continue their schooling remotely.

Two months ago, they opened a momo (dumpling) shop in their tea garden neighborhood to pay their tuition fees and associated costs. Nishita also provides coaching support to the community children and stands beside her mother as a breadwinner in the family.

“We want to show our father that girls can also achieve and be the pillars of the future,” said Nishita, with utmost confidence.

Rural Aid feels that Nishita, Roma, and Surya  girls with strong determination  can create hundreds of change-makers in society!

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of program participants.

Header photo: Sisters Nishita, Roma, and Surya in their momo (dumpling) shop in a tea garden neighborhood. © Rural Aid

 


 

Rural Aid is part of GFC’s Combating Child Trafficking in India initiative, which works to fight trafficking and hazardous labor in India by addressing their root causes, providing direct services to at-risk and affected children, and supporting local actors to take collective action.

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