With the support of UN Women, women and men in the rural communities of Assam State in India have found new ways to work together to prevent and respond to violence against women, youth, and children in their neighbourhoods.
“I tell my husband that I am not the same woman whom he can ill-treat and subdue. He now helps me out at home”, proudly exclaims Kiara Devi*, a tea plucker on a tea estate in Assam in the northeast of India, and a member of a local Jugnu Club.
Jugnu Clubs, formed with support from UN Women in several tea estates in Assam, are women’s empowerment groups that are helping to break the silence on violence against women and mobilize action for the safety and equality of all women and girls. Beginning in January 2017, the clubs were formed as part of a comprehensive approach to preventing and responding to sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women and girls in the region. It was UN Women’s first prevention of violence against women programme to be implemented in rural spaces in Assam.
“[At club meetings] we encourage girls and mothers to not be silent if someone is experiencing harassment in the community, and to come to us”, says Devi. “We are now more aware about not accepting domestic violence and to not stand for discrimination between men and women, and the ways we can address this—this is what I have learned”.
Creating safe and supportive workplaces
Six million people in Assam State are estimated to be employed in the state’s 765 tea estates and 100,000 small gardens, producing more than half of India’s tea and 13 per cent of tea globally. Women represent half of the workforce in Assam tea estates, with most working as tea pluckers, and many experience violence at home, while at work, and in public spaces. In 2015, in Assam there were a reported 11,225 cases of cruelty by husbands or relatives against women, with alcohol abuse by men reported to have a significant role in the violence (“Crime in India 2015: Compendium”).
As part of UN Women’s prevention programme developed in the Udalguri district of Assam, hundreds of tea estate managers, welfare officers, workers, and Jugnu Club members received training about India’s Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, women’s rights, and the legal obligations around domestic violence and child labour. Training sessions used local folk songs and dialects, skits, and other user-friendly education materials. Among the training participants, 95 per cent had been unaware of the legislation and its provisions before the training; after, 80 per cent of participants reflected that the training had improved their understanding of the Act.
Jugnu Club participants in the programme are now aware of their rights and are more vocal about their needs. Through a process of safety audits piloted in the programme—where women identify safe and unsafe spaces—women have demanded streetlights be placed in dark public areas and safe transport to work, including two buses to ferry women from nearby villages to the tea gardens. These steps have also helped strengthen the relationship between management and the women workers.
Raising awareness and educating communities
Under the programme, raising awareness about how to prevent and respond to violence against women, youth, and children extended beyond the tea estate setting to the wider rural community, including schools. Mass campaigns about gender equality using community-led performing arts and crafts, such as interactive theatre shows, dance, and music, reached more than 6,000 community members, and 371 children participated in early intervention programmes focused on preventing violence.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, and campaign activities could not be conducted in person, an online Facebook campaign was launched that reached close to 300,000 people.
“I have observed that after UN Women’s work on the tea estate, more families are permitting their daughters to enrol in computer training classes. My sister goes to computer classes too”, says 20-year-old Mohammed Mondal*, who lives on one of the tea estates and participated as an actor in one of the interactive theatre shows.
“Earlier, families would not allow their daughters to enrol. The moment girls turn 17 or 18 years old they are married off. My parents want my sister to be married at 18 years old. But a girl can have her dreams and wishes. I have argued with my family that my sister should be allowed to complete her education and then marry”, exclaims Mondal.
Long-term legal support
In June 2020, with the technical support of UN Women, a Legal Aid Centre was opened in Udalguri district, the first centre of its kind on a tea estate in Assam. The holistic service centre provides legal consultation to women and information on a wide range of issues. One tea company provided a mobile van to enable the centre’s services to be accessed in the six tea estates. As part of this comprehensive model, UN Women also trained 67 lawyers from the region about laws on domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace to enable them to provide legal services to women in these communities.
“The interactions with UN Women have had positive outcomes, and so such interactions need to be conducted on a larger scale in the sector”, requests Ramesh Patel*, a welfare officer who works in the tea estates. “UN Women’s engagement is the first time that such measures have taken place at an institutional level. When a trusted external entity engages with the workers, it is more effective, since people pay more attention”.
*Names and personal information have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals.
Interventions by UN Women as part of the Prevention of Violence against Women Programme in Assam, India, have reached 15,000 people. A new partnership with the German development agency (GIZ) enabled further expansion of interventions focused on the health, safety, and wellness of rural women in Assam adapted to the COVID-19 context in India, and in line with the “Leave no one behind” principle of the Sustainable Development Goals.