Collective Voices, Strong Voices
Many of us are partial to a cup of tea – including Sr Shakuntala Kujur ibvm. And if you’re partial to a cup of tea, you more than likely know Darjeeling. Therefore, it would be logical to assume that as the new Director of the Darjeeling Mary Ward Social Centre (DMWSC), Sr Shakuntala, although very far from her home village of Gamhariya Bagicha, would be pretty happy with her tea.
But she knows there’s a darker side to the steaming, sweet brew.
Sr Shakuntala sees the human impact of the tea industry daily. The structure of tea plantations is feudal in nature, with workers following rules that have been in operation for centuries. Women and children do the back-breaking work of plucking the newest shoots of the tea plant, while men pack and sort the tea in factories. Given their meagre wages, parents can barely afford enough food for their children, let alone send them to school, ensuring they remain some of the poorest and most ill-treated people in the world today.
Lacking education and a sense of their own worth, India’s tea plantation families are highly vulnerable, particularly the girls and women who fall prey to the lure of human traffickers promising a better life. COVID-19 has, of course, made matters worse. Many of the women working on the plantations have lost their jobs, while others do the same work for half the pay.
Arriving in Darjeeling last September after several years spent caring for children living on the streets of central Kolkata, Sr Shakuntala’s ambitions are worthy.
My hope for the girls and women in the communities that I work with is that they have equal rights to grow and become self-reliant and live in a fearless society.
In its Collective Voices and Ethical Enterprises programs, the team at DMWSC works closely with the women and girls of the plantations in developing vocational skills that can be used to generate an independent income. The training provided includes tailoring and weaving, and women learn how to access government support and loans to help them start their own small businesses. Self-help groups are set up to ensure ongoing support among the women and strengthen their collective voice.
As a mentor to her staff, Sr Shakuntala knows the benefits of a thriving, fulfilled team that works together.
“My ambition for the Centre is to see the staff happy because only a happy mind can create a happy society,” she notes.
Every employee carries a secret dream in their hearts, and the employee should let it grow for the betterment of the Centre and the broader community.
At an international meeting of the Loreto Sisters in Spain in September 2014, delegates formally declared their opposition to the crime of human trafficking:
As members of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, an international and multicultural congregation of women religious, we pledge to work for the eradication of all forms of human trafficking and its causes, particularly among women and children, wherever we live and minister.
The purpose of this public statement was to draw attention to human trafficking as a serious social issue and to call all members of the Loreto network to work towards its eradication.
The trafficking of persons, often referred to as modern-day slavery, has many guises. It includes sexual exploitation, forced labour, domestic servitude and child marriage. An estimated 40 million people are victims of modern slavery on any given day. Out of these, approximately 25 million people are in forced labour and another 15 million people in a forced marriage.*
As the development organisation of the Loreto Sisters, MWIA currently supports programs run in India and Australia to combat human trafficking.
* Source: International Organization for Migration (IOM) | Global Estimates for Modern Slavery
Author: Hannah George