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For How Long Will Quality Education Remain Elusive For Girls In Assam’s Tea Estates?

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This post is a part of Back To School, a global movement to ensure that access to education for girls in India does not suffer post COVID-19. Click here to find out more.

By Anjuman Begum:

History Of Tea Plantation

With the discovery of tea growing potential during the British era, Assam was the most successful tea producer in the world, contributing nearly half of it. With 1000 tea gardens producing 570 million kilos of tea, Assam state is the largest tea producer in the country as well (53%).

Tea plantation sector soon proved the largest employment potential in the state. Labourers from Orissa, Bihar, Bengal etc. migrated permanently to the tea estates in Assam since the British era to tab the tea-growing potential and generate revenue from the state.

Whereas tea production increased the GDP, the life and livelihood of the tea garden community known as tea tribe or Adivasis remain marginalised till today despite the fact that they constitute 20% of the total population. This community was confined within the tea estates and lived barely from hand to mouth. Nearly half of the labourers of tea gardens are women, and most are engaged as daily wager as pucker of tea leaves.

Education On Tea Estates

I want to be a teacher in future and want to live outside the tea estate. Life is very boring here, and there’s nothing exciting here. I have lived here 18 years of my life, and now I want change. My education will help me in that”, says Silonti Das, a young girl living on a tea estate.

A young girl on a cycle
Silonti on her bicycle which she used to travel the long distance to her school

Right to education is a fundamental right, and the state has a duty to provide basic education. However, in a tea garden, the scenario is different. Tea estate management is responsible for education, but they end up providing only the primary level of education.

No facility for higher education is available in the majority of 765 tea estates in Assam has. Women and girl children are further victimised in their pursuit of quality education. Neglect by the state and gender discrimination in the family and society creates barriers to get an education or to choose a career.

The Current Scenario

Measures adopted by the government to contain the spread of COVID-19 have further affected the fragile education system in the tea garden. This pandemic has exposed the digital divide, vulnerability and created further challenges to the life and livelihood of the tea garden community.

The lockdown and loss of income by Siloni’s parents and elder brother have shattered her dreams.

I started working in the tea estate for the last month at a wage of 130 rupees per day. I pluck tea leaves the whole day and then go home and if there is still energy left in my body I study for an hour. If I fall asleep, then I get up early and study for an hour. But I don’t want to leave my education,” Silonti said.

In this situation, the chances of return of the school dropouts are near impossible.

Schools have been closed since March 23, 2020, and several educational institutions have been converted into temporary quarantine centres. As a consequence, the education and learning process has been disrupted and has adversely impacted the girls in vulnerable communities.

A survey by Purva Bharati Educational Trust indicated that the teaching process had been completely stopped in the three gardens taken as a sample. Many teachers don’t know how to operate smartphones.

A Gendered Imbalance

It has been a month since Silonti started working and has earned 3000 rupees. Her elder sister, a nursing student, suggested she discontinue the work since it’s affecting her study. Her brother helped her with an internet pack of 250 rupees. She watched the news and a few educational videos on YouTube. Otherwise, she has no access to the outside world.

Procuring a smartphone and access to data is also beyond the financial capacity of the families in the tea garden. Most of the students in the tea garden are also first-generation learners, and their parents have been informally educated. Subjects like mathematics, science and English are beyond the self-learning capacity of the students.

Silonti has no one to guide her with the lessons. Her sister guides her with whatever she knows but couldn’t manage to study for the subject of English due to lack of teachers. Her teachers are away, and she was busy with her work in the tea estate and couldn’t attend online classes.

This post is a part of Stories From Assam, a special series under the #BackToSchool campaign. Tell us how this lockdown has affected your education! Join the conversation by adding a post here. here.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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