The eight kilometers that Sonia and Rima bike each day from their homes on the Maud Tea Estate might seem like a short ride, especially to seasoned cyclists. But that distance spans two worlds in India's Assam state: one within the placid, strictly-regulated confines of the tea estate and another amidst the hectic pace of a business-driven city.
Both 17-year-old Sonia and 20-year-old Rima have spent all of their young lives on the tea estate, just like thousands of Assam residents their age. In Assam, tea is king: the industry employs at least 500,000 workers on more than 800 estates, producing 882 million pounds of tea each year. But the industry's dominance doesn't mean prosperity for families on tea estates: only two in five adults have a full-time job. The rest depend on uncertain seasonal labour that pays between £1 and £1 per day.
For youth like Sonia and Rima, the towns that flourish on the periphery of tea estates offer more opportunities for gainful employment. But, because of substandard schooling and a lack of training, people from tea estates often can't compete with more qualified applicants for even the simplest jobs.
Mercy Corps, through a partnership with Tazo Tea Company, is giving them a better chance to win those jobs. The Community Health and Advancement Initiative (CHAI) has helped 400 youth over the past year with scholarships, technical trainings and apprenticeships — including Sonia and Rima.
Mercy Corps helped find the two young women find apprenticeships at the Nistha Beauty Parlor in the city of Chabua, a bustling place not far from the Maud Tea Estate. For several hours each day, they work in the tiny pink-walled shop, learning from an experienced stylist named Ellen Chetia and practicing their craft on customers.
Prejudices against tea estate residents run deep in this part of India. Even their styling instructor doubted their prospects.
"Initially, when they started their apprenticeships here, I wasn't sure they'd do well — coming from the tea gardens, especially," Chetia said. "But they've learned quickly and picked up what they've needed to. They're great at interacting with our customers."
Rima agrees that she and Sonia have learned a lot from the CHAI-sponsored programme. "We feel like the apprenticeship has really helped us to gain skills like better communications and customer service, and put us on our way to becoming successful entrepreneurs."
Nearing the end of their six-month apprenticeship, Sonia and Rima plan to open their own shop soon — together, on the Maud Tea Estate. Mercy Corps will help them find a loan to get started.
"We want to name our salon after something about the CHAI programme, which has helped us so much," Sonia smiled. "And when we open, we want our shop to be a place where women can feel comfortable, and where they always get great service."
So, in the next few months, good, affordable hair styling and other services will come to the Maud Tea Estate. But, more importantly, Sonia and Rima will carry a wealth of training and self-confidence back inside the tea estate fences — and maybe even the opportunity to a create few new jobs for young women with similar dreams.