March, 2024

Creating a safe support system for women

The Plantation Community Empowerment Programme (PCEP) is an initiative across 23 tea estates over 9 districts of Assam, India. Its goal is to catalyse a thriving tea sector by improving the well-being and participation of communities living and working on the estates – many of whom face multiple hardships in day-to-day life. To do this, the programme fosters a Community Development Forum (CDF) approach to bring estate management, workers, and the wider community together to resolve key issues. The pilot phase had been in 3 tea estates from 2017 to 2022, and the scale-up phase is currently ongoing in 20 tea estates
from 2022 to 2025.

Meet Sangeetha

Sangeetha Kerkata is a member of Bukhial Tea Estate’s CDF. Her first foray into community work began in 2016, when she was introduced to the concept of self-help groups (SHGs) by another woman in her village. Encouraged to start one herself, Sangeetha formed the Mother Teresa SHG, a women’s group with 12 members, of which she is the current President.

SHGs are important stakeholders for CDFs, as they are grassroots organisations linked to local governance; the next structure up, the Village Organisation, comprises ten local SHGs. After starting a SHG, Sangeetha actively rallied more women in Bukhial and succeeded in forming a Village Organisation. However, she also understands that, without sufficient training, the SHGs will not be able to sustain it. As such, as soon as an SHG receives a registration code, she invites them to training on how to run their group, document their proceedings, and maintain their financial records, which are required by government. Sangeetha makes herself available to the groups when needed; if there are conflicts or
disagreements, she steps in to help resolve them through discussions.

Strength in solidarity

On the estate, the SHG is the foremost support system for women. It allows them a forum to air their problems and seek both, advice, and support.

We discuss family-related problems,” explains Sangeetha. “Through discussions, many of these problems have been resolved. Wherever there’s a high rate of domestic abuse, such as when the husband is drunk and creating violence, we go to their house and hold meetings. We don’t say anything bad to the man, we tell him “Just sit and listen”. We discuss the issue with the group, no matter what the problem. The group members ultimately become like a family.”

Sangeetha Kerkata

Tangible impact

Lokhimoni is a tea plucker, a member of the Bondhona SHG, and attends Bukhial CDF meetings regularly. These groups have given her an opportunity to do more for herself and the community. Where she saw most support was perhaps in handling life with her husband’s alcoholism. Lokhimoni says they would often argue, and he would assault her when drunk.

Sangeetha’s SHG intervened and visited Lokhimoni and her husband in their home. They spoke to him and, along with providing a space to talk and discuss advice, were able to demonstrate to Lokhimoni that she was not alone and had their support. This intervention brought some change; although Lokhimoni’s husband has not yet given up drinking entirely, the episodes of excessive drinking, and the abuse that used to follow, have stopped.

Financial and emotional progression

SHGs also have access to government funding which can be used for loans to its members. Members of Sangeetha’s SHG have been using these to achieve increasing economic independence, and Sangeetha herself has used her savings to lease a tea garden for the last three years. She hires one worker, and, between them, they pluck tea leaves four or five days a week. “I have profited from it and can support my family,” she tells us. “I am also investing the money.”

Sangeetha – who has gone on to join PCEP as a community mobiliser – credits her progress to joining Bukhial’s CDF. “I keep thinking that if I hadn’t joined the CDF, maybe these ideas would have never come to my mind,” she says.

“Joining there gave me something, I gained some experience and with it, I can do something properly. Especially my confidence level… even if it’s a little, it has increased.”

“Before, I used to speak with my head lowered in front of people,” Sangeetha recalls. “Even if I knew things, I didn’t have the courage to speak up. There are many girls or women like me in other gardens as well who should come out and learn [from the CDF] – not just to develop income, but to develop self-confidence”

Watch: PCEP programme overview video