Sri Lanka earns millions for its tea, but the people who pick the tea are some of the poorest in the country. My school is based in the Maskeliya area tea estates, which are among the poorest tea plantations financially and educationally. These factors, coupled with the systematic oppression of tea estate life, creates complex barriers to children’s ability to learn and progress.
The debilitating and poorly paid work of tea picking leads many men and women to turn to alcohol. Many don’t earn enough to meet the basic needs of their families but spend a considerable amount on alcohol, thrusting their families into further debt. Alcoholism and domestic violence are serious issues here. Home life for children is very hard: parents neglect their children by not providing sufficient care and guidance, and the alcoholism sparks fights in families at night, leaving children frightened and frustrated.
So children come to school full of mental agony, most won’t have completed their homework and will be so preoccupied with their family issues they can’t concentrate in class.
Around 40 per cent of students enter my school considering self-harm and 25 per cent are suicidal. They are broken and we try to put them back together again.
My school is different to many tea-estate schools. The majority of teachers at other schools try to “help” students by reprimanding or punishing them without understanding the problems they face. The government doesn’t train these teachers to empathise with their students or to help the students develop coping strategies. In most cases, tea-estate teachers are the weakest in the country, stationed in these schools by the government as their weakness are unlikely to be exposed.
Our approach is very different. We train our teachers and ensure they know that they need to help students learn coping skills to deal with their emotional struggles in order to achieve positive mental health and wellbeing. Emotional health issues make it hard to be confident and to focus, but addressing this will give these students a chance to aspire to and achieve more. We hope to set an example to other schools and to show the government what can be achieved.
Tea Leaf Vision is a UK based charity funded by Lebara Foundation