Photo courtesy of The Centre

Women working as tea pickers form the single largest segment of the plantation workforce in Sri Lanka, with little room to progress in their careers. Over the years women occupied in manual work have been resigned to difficult working conditions and limited prospects. They have been supervised, monitored, instructed and commanded by men. The tea industry is a patriarchal and male dominant culture, with women experiencing discrimination both at home and in the workplace.

Partnering with Save the Children, The Centre for Child Rights and Business has spearheaded the Mother and Child Friendly Seal initiative to address these issues. Through the Child Rights In Business (CRIB) challenge, the Centre has provided opportunities for innovative proposals, offering seed funding to kickstart programmes promoting the wellbeing of women and children in these communities.

The Talawakelle tea estate has introduced Sri Lanka’s first female field supervisors in the tea plantations by training women supervisors in all aspects of tea production and processing while the Centre carried out a gender training and coaching session for the women supervisors to help them understand some of the challenges they may face in the fields when they started working with male workers and colleagues who are not used to having female supervisors managing them and how they could address them.

 Ahila Thillainathan, Country Director for the Centre, answers questions about the programme.

What inspired Mother and Child Friendly Seal initiative? 

The initiative was developed as a response to an emerging need of Save the Children in Sri Lanka to continue the child rights business principles work in the tea estates under a new modality that would allow for sustainability of the efforts and increased ownership of the transformative process by the companies. Under a strategic partnership with Save the Children, the Centre took on the responsibility of developing and implementing the Seal Initiative.

How does the CRIB challenge aim to improve the lives of women, children and families in plantation communities while also encouraging best business practices?

Let me share an example of a winning CRIB challenge concept to explain this. Horana Plantations identified through consultations with their women workers that period poverty was a key issue for women and girls living on tea estates. So their concept focused on setting up a production unit that produced low-cost sanitary kits. The Centre supported Horana Plantations with some funding which was matched by the company as well as linking them with technical expertise. Now, there is a functioning unit at Alton estate providing not only low cost dignity kits to women and girls on that estate but also providing employment for some of the residents who work at the production unit. This initiative has supported women to be able to go for work with dignity and girls to their schools without missing workdays or school days.

How does improving the lives of tea estate workers improve business outcomes?  

A critical aspect that the tea industry is facing is the outmigration of workers, and particularly youth, who do not see work on tea estates as a viable option. By investing in improving the lives of tea estate workers, it will support businesses in having sufficient human resources for their operations and especially people who work with a commitment and in the long run, contributing to the sustainability of the tea industry as a whole.

What are the specific barriers faced by women and female youth in tea plantation communities?

 Some of the specific barriers faced by women and female youth in tea plantation communities can be seen in two ways: firstly, considering barriers within the tea estates themselves, the limited opportunities for progressive career pathways on estates, upskilling opportunities, dignity of work that includes access to proper sanitation facilities and eating places in the fields, respectful communications and fair wages that take into account the skilled work that women workers do in plucking tea. Secondly, when considering barriers in general, limited information and opportunities on skilling programmes and career pathways, limited functioning youth clubs that enable female leadership and priorities and limited female role models from tea plantation communities.

How does this initaitve challenge existing barriers placed on women in the tea plantations? 

Women workers on tea plantations have rarely moved up the career ladder and mostly remained as wage workers for their entire working life since the inception of the tea plantations. While there have been ad-hoc cases where a woman has moved to another role in the welfare staff, those are not planned or part of company policy. This initiative is significant because Talawakelle tea estate took a stance and commitment to shift the narrative that opportunities for women on tea estates are confined to tea picking and launched this initiative to encourage young women from tea estates, particularly children of tea pickers, to enter the workforce as professional staff with staff benefits as trained field supervisors who now have the opportunity to be promoted based on their performance. This not only breaks through one of the barriers women faced on tea plantations but also challenges the narrative that field supervisors have traditionally been men.

Buddhini Withana, Senior Technical Advisor – Child Protection and Child Rights in Business at Save the Children answered questions on the importance of investing in women and children.

What is the intersectionality between child rights and women’s empowerment?

Women have historically faced sexual and gender-based violence, discrimination and disempowerment. Children’s primary caregivers have been women. This is one instance where women’s empowerment and child rights intersect. Women should be empowered to live with freedom and exercise their rights so that they are able to protect themselves and their children. The primary caregiver is the main adult in the child’s life, especially until middle childhood. The extent to which women are able to exercise their rights and fulfill their responsibilities will have a major impact on how children perceive the ability of caregivers to look after them, as well as their socio-culturally rooted communities and society. It will instill norms and values in children, especially gender norms, which can either be harmful or progressive, which will help to either continue the oppressive cycle or break it.

What is the importance of supporting the rights and empowerment of women and girls, especially in marginalised or vulnerable communities?

We live in a world where major gender inequalities exist and are even perpetuated for the benefit of those who drive those inequalities. And we largely believe that its always the power hungry man who drives this. I would like to us consider more broadly about who are the real victims of gender inequality and think honestly about who are the oppresses and who are the oppressed. Women come from all walks of life. What is the role and responsibility of a woman with power towards women who are powerless? How do we organise ourselves and our efforts to effectively reach women and girls in extremely vulnerable and disadvantaged situations? How can we make a real impact on their lives? The issues women from vulnerable communities face are not new. Then have we done enough?