From darkness into light: improving lives on tea estates

I want to tell you about two cups of tea: one I had back in 2006 and one I enjoyed today. While they tasted much the same, there is a distinct and important difference. That difference is called the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) – an initiative of the largest and most well-known tea brands, the tea producers (tea gardens) and development organisations, of which UNICEF is one.

Recently, I travelled with UNICEF colleagues to the north eastern Indian state of Assam, where 51 percent of India’s tea production grows. We went to see how the ETP with the help of UNICEF public health experts is changing lives of the tea garden managers and communities themselves, especially of adolescent girls, whose enthusiasm was contagious.

Back in 2006, before this project started, the tea in my cup had probably been picked by a woman who was likely to be married as a child and was at a high risk of dying in childbirth due to nutritional issues associated with the traditional high-salt diet.

There was a 95 percent chance she was anaemic. She was more likely than average to see her young child die of pneumonia, diarrhoea, or malaria. With few other opportunities available for women, she would be destined for a life of plucking tea leaves in the tea gardens.

But that was before a group of 34 tea garden managers approached UNICEF, with funding from ETP members in the United Kingdom. Together they began to try some innovative, yet simple interventions, which had changed the lives of thousands of women and children already, and which have the potential to help millions more in the region, and wherever tea is grown.

Today, the tea in my cup is picked by women workers who have learned to grow their own nutrient rich vegetables in their kitchen gardens. They have learned about menstrual health and the importance of ante-natal care and professionally attended births. They appreciate the importance of education for their daughters and the many positives of waiting for them to become adults before they marry.

They have learned about good hygiene practices that help keep their families healthy. They live in villages on or near the tea estates where latrines are used by 100 percent of the residents, where malaria is reduced with the use of pesticides that are non-toxic to people, and where there is a school and a medical clinic available to all residents. I’ve decided that this cup tastes way better!

Empowering girls and women in tea estates

Adolescent girls sit in the classroom on a tea estate in Assam, India. They now have opportunities to continue into further education © UNICEF/2014/Michael Copping


As the UNICEF car entered the first tea garden we visited, we were greeted by a traditional Assamese stick dance which featured girls (and one boy drummer!) in the traditional red and white cotton clothes of the region.

Later on, as we talked to the girls and young women about their activities, their faces lit up with pride. They had opportunities and they knew it!  Many from their group had gone on to further their education at a nearby village, and some were destined for university. One of the mothers said with a smile, “Because of UNICEF, this community has come from darkness into light.”

The project results, which were carefully tracked by the University hospital nearby, were clear. Maternal and infant mortality – down, child marriage – down, number of children out of school – down. Well suffice to say that all the indicators had moved significantly in the positive direction. The project improved the lives of more than 30,000 people. The tea garden managers noted a more resilient workforce, less sick days, and they had a secure demand for their tea at a good price due to the participation in the ETP.

With the evidence in hand, and a growing interest from local and state government officials, the work has only just begun. The goal now is to expand it to the entire region, then to other parts of the country, where millions more can benefit. UNICEF helps by doing a comprehensive mapping of the tea gardens and their communities in the entire state of Assam.

Our work doesn’t stop there. Across agribusiness in its many forms – tea, palm oil, rice, coffee, cocoa – the list goes on – there are similar opportunities to improve communities’ well-being and children’s rights. Together with the thriving industries and consumers’ demand for this kind of positive change, this provides an enormous opportunity for UNICEF to engage with the corporate sector to make a large scale positive impact for children.

The Children’s Rights and Business Principles, developed by UNICEF and partners, ask businesses to look at their impacts in the workplace, marketplace, and community and to weave the support and advancement of children’s rights into everyday business practices.

The ETP shows what can be achieved when the stakeholders from all parts of the value chain come together – industry, Government, and UNICEF – to create solutions that will benefit children for generations to come.  So next time you buy tea, look for the ETP logo – it means a lot to children!

The Author
Michael Copping is Corporate Engagement Specialist at UNICEF East Asia and Pacific.

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