An Unbreakable Spirit
This March, I had the opportunity to visit the local community members living and working in tea estates throughout West Bengal, India, alongside my colleague from Australia. Having lived in India for over 20 years, I felt accustomed to the challenges plaguing Indian society, such as poverty, child marriage, child labour, and illiteracy. However, after experiencing the community’s plight so closely, I felt distressed by the true extent of the injustice experienced. To me, it was utterly unfamiliar and incomprehensible. The extraordinary time spent within these communities has left me truly transformed.
Tea is a savoured beverage throughout India, a crowd favourite readily available in almost every household. As tea lovers, we often take for granted this much-loved beverage without realising the harsh realities of the tea industry, which has been plagued with human rights violations and ethical issues since its colonial inception in the 1800s. Our interactions with those most affected, often the women who live and work in these communities, revealed the true extent of the injustices they face and the feudal nature of the tea industry. Workers and their families live in overcrowded settlements crammed into the corners of the sprawling tea gardens. They work six to seven days a week for a meagre AUD4.50 a day, struggling to support their families. One of the most persistent fears among these women was their lack of financial independence and legal ownership over their homes and land, despite having worked for years. As India’s population grows, development increases, putting these already vulnerable women and communities further at risk. In many instances, tea estates that provide employment and housing to thousands of people are suddenly sold for commercial development. With little notice and a lack of financial means, whole communities watch as bulldozers turn up on their doorsteps, leaving them with no home, no income and no hope for their futures.
The communities we visited face daunting social justice issues, amplified by a general lack of education and awareness, particularly amongst the older generations. Child marriage, child labour, child abuse, domestic violence, and human trafficking are just some of the inconceivable human rights violations ever prevalent in India. Girls and women are particularly vulnerable, as they are often lured by traffickers promising a better life and financial security. Tragically, older children in families are forced to quit school and work as child labourers. The early exposure, lack of guidance, and excessive burden placed upon them leaves them vulnerable to addiction and other destructive behaviours, such as excessive drinking and smoking, severely impacting their childhood and futures.
Despite the extreme anguish and pain, and the many distressing stories faced by these communities, there was great comfort in knowing that the dedicated team of volunteers, case officers, project coordinators and the director of Darjeeling Mary Ward Social Centre (DMWSC) personally watch out for them and work tirelessly to support them. Through initiatives like Collective Voices, Ethical Enterprises and Legal Aid, the staff at DMWSC are empowering women, children and communities to understand, enact, and promote their rights in four key areas: education, protection, health and nutrition. They are making a significant impact in increasing community awareness through educational workshops on the importance of attending school, child marriage, trafficking and domestic violence. These efforts have been highly successful and victims have significantly decreased. The progress of children who have joined the programs has been remarkable – children attend school more regularly and have come together to motivate other families. They are the “little informers” of the community as they are often the first to report instances of abuse, domestic violence, and child marriage to project coordinators.
The DMWSC team’s efforts extend beyond just awareness raising. They also provide practical support to the women and girls of the plantations through vocational training initiatives such as tailoring, weaving, and candle making. These workshops create opportunities for women and girls to gain financial independence and grow their confidence. They have helped women form and set up self-help groups, providing a platform to voice concerns and ensuring ongoing support and unity.
In the few weeks I spent in India, I learned so much about the people of my own country. I admire and applaud the ‘unbreakable spirit of the people’; whether it be the staff of DMWSC working with determination to create positive change or the women and children of the tea estates who fight every day despite the hardships – they are truly courageous. Their bravery and perseverance serve as an inspiration and reminder that we must always, always, stand up for what is right.
Author: Fiza Khosla, MWIA Community Engagement Coordinator