Dipen Gogoi

Women are the key to sustainable development and quality of life in any family and society and the female tea workers are no exception. Since these women have contributed to the enrichment and prosperity of society and the nation through their hardwork and sacrifice, they can by no means be considered unimportant.

The tea industry is the only sector in which the majority of the workers are female. Since women are able to engage in the quality picking of tea leaves, a majority of women are recruited and subjugated. We see on some tea packets pretty pictures of jovial women, with bamboo baskets on their backs, plucking newly-sprouted tea leaves in a lush tea garden. But, that is an irony in itself because there are numerous tales about the helplessness of these women.

Female tea garden workers have a high probability of being victims of child marriage or being deserted by their husbands after bearing children. Despite interventions like Adolescent Girls’ clubs by the Assam Branch Indian Tea Association (ABITA) and the UNICEF to alter their mindsets, child marriage remains a challenge. Also, lack of awareness is one of the reasons why teenagers elope, which often results in early pregnancy and desertion of the young girl once her partner realises the additional responsibility. Alcoholism, mostly among men, that results in an economic drain, poor health and even domestic violence, is yet another major problem. Undeniably, no education, poverty, addiction of males to country beer, poor standards of living, rising population and inadequate health facilities provided to them are some pressing issues in their lives.

The literacy rate of the plantation labour community is one of the lowest in Assam, particularly among girls and women. As a result, they are extremely vulnerable to sexual exploitation and early marriages are prevalent among them. One of the reasons for the poor education scenario of the community is gender discrimination against girl children, which is common among them. Moreover, sometimes, because of the daily struggle to survive and because of an ailing mother, a girl child is compelled to drop out of school. With abysmally low wages, the women often suffer from acute malnutrition, too, which results in exposure to various serious health problems. When the mother is taken ill and bed-ridden, the girl child has to wait upon her ailing mother, besides doing every household chore – right from cooking to cleaning the house.

Also, girls, by and large, have to remain at home to look after their younger siblings. Very often, girl children are seen to be working alongside their parents, lending a helping hand. Even though the Plantation Labour Act demands that the school should be less than 1.5 kms. from the labour line, there are hardly any management-run upper primary or high schools in tea estate campuses. Some girls, who are dropouts, have to work as casual workers, commonly called ‘faltu labourers’ for a pittance in order to contribute to the household expenses.

A study by the UNICEF has revealed that 95 per cent women in the tea gardens suffer from anaemia, which, experts say, is related to poor nutrition. According to the NRHM, 80 per cent of maternal deaths occur inside plantations as there are no hospitals in the vicinity or adequate medical help in case of emergencies. Assam has one of the country’s highest maternal mortality rates (328 per 1,00,000 live births) and it is said that the tea garden population is one of the main reasons for this.

Female tea pluckers also suffer from violations of their human rights. They are forced to continue regular heavy work through eight months of their pregnancy and told that no light work is available. They are, in this way, very often subject to violations of their maternity protection rights and benefits and face rampant discrimination at work.

Witch-hunting is another major problem among the tea tribes. It’s a social malaise that claims several lives in Assam’s tea belt and the tribal areas every year. Women are branded as witches and mercilessly beaten, even to death. It’s a worrying fact that though the Assam Witch Hunting Prohibition, Protection Act, 2015, came into force in October, 2018, such incidents continue to take place in some tea garden areas even today. Quite regrettably, the leaders of the tea tribes are rarely seen to take expeditious steps to undertake extensive awareness programmes for its proper implementation.

Women are the key to sustainable development and quality of life in any family and society and the female tea workers are no exception. Since these women have contributed to the enrichment and prosperity of society and the nation through their hardwork and sacrifice, they can by no means be considered unimportant.

The educated youths and the leaders of the community need to understand that if women remain underdeveloped, stunted in growth, deficient in enjoyment of opportunities which make life full, it’s unpractical to expect such a community to develop and grow to its full potential. The miserable condition of these afflicted women has become a veritable obstructing factor in the march of the community to heights of achievement and growth.