Gender discrimination towards young girls and women in India has been well documented in recent years. But as we celebrate and advocate for women's rights across the world today, an inspiring adolescent girls' programme taking place in the heart of Assam's tea communities is one of the key ways that young girls are being given the chance to have a voice and be heard.
During the eight years I've worked for the Unicef supported child protection program in ABITA, (The Assam Branch of the Indian Tea Association) I've met many young girls who have been forced into marriage, dropped out of school or been made to work to help support their families. Often these girls come from the most marginalized and socially excluded groups in Assam, with many in particular living in the hundreds of tea estates that cover the districts.
Exacerbated by traditional social norms such as child marriage, trafficking and child labour, young girls living in tea estates are not only more likely to be engaged in domestic labour and out of school, but they are also at greater risk of discrimination and gender based violence. Also, due to the geographical remoteness of tea-gardens, they don't have access to those female role models in mainstream society that others can look up to, to help them believe that their lives could be different.
But for these girls there is hope.
An empowerment programme for young girls, which forms a critical part of a new partnership between Unicef and The Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP), is helping to protect and change the lives of those living in these tea communities. Not only by giving them the confidence and courage they need to address issues of violence, abuse and exploitation, but also by raising awareness and changing attitudes at the community and family level. The groups provide a safe environment for girls where they can share their thoughts on issues affecting them, giving them the life skills they need to become confident enough to stand up for their rights and dream that a future of opportunity and independence could open up to them.
Unicef has been running these groups since 2007 and has already managed to reach thousands of young girls, protecting many from forced marriages, child labour, trafficking, or helped them to stay in school and get an education. Now, through the new partnership with ETP, Unicef will have the money and resource to be able to reach many thousands more in the tea communities in Assam.
But it is not the numbers that stay with me, but the stories of the young girls who I have met over the years who have been given the confidence and courage to believe that they can create a different future for themselves and their peers. They have found the courage to dream.
Pinky Lohar is one that stands out; at fifteen years old she is the eldest of four children and the only daughter of a family living on a tea estate in Dibrugarh, north eastern Assam. She loves to study and is an active member of the estates peer to peer adolescent support group that has been supported by another of Unicef's partners, Twinings.
But one day when she returned from school Pinky's parents told her that they have received a good marriage proposal for her. Pinky didn't want to get married but her parents forced her to give consent as they wanted to get rid of her as soon as possible so that they could meet the responsibilities of their three sons.
But Pinky stood firm by her decision and with sheer courage and determination, reasoned with her parents and finally managed to convince them to not force her to get married - she is now continuing with her studies.
So if you are drinking a cup of tea today - on International Women's Day - think about Pinky and other young girls like her who now has the confidence and courage to believe in a future that any young girl, like your own daughter, sister or niece, dreams of.
The three-year partnership between Unicef and ETP will equip more than 25,000 girls with the knowledge and life skills that will help them secure a better future and reduce their vulnerability to violence, abuse and exploitation, as well as giving more than 10,000 community members the knowledge and training to protect children from all forms of violence, abuse and exploitation. It is the first of its kind to bring together all key stakeholders in the tea industry - public and private organisations and the supply chain - to tackle the problem of child exploitation across the sector. The three-year programme supported and funded by IDH the Sustainable Trade Initiative; ETP members, Tesco, OTG (Meßmer), Tata Global Beverages (Tetley, Tata Tea), and Taylors of Harrogate (Yorkshire Tea); and Typhoo