NEW YORK – Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, 64, is a human rights activist from India who has been at the forefront of the global movement to end child slavery and exploitation since 1980, when he gave up a lucrative career as an electrical engineer to initiate a crusade against child servitude.
As a grass-roots activist, Satyarthi Kailash and the grassroot movement founded by him, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement), have liberated more than 100,000 children from exploitation and developed a successful model for their education, rehabilitation and reintegration into the mainstream society.
As a worldwide campaigner, he has been the architect of the single largest civil society network for the most exploited children, the Global March Against Child Labour, which is a worldwide coalition of children’s rights organizations, teachers’ unions and trade unions. His efforts led to the adoption of ILO Convention 182 on worst forms of child labor in 1999. He is also the founding president of the Global Campaign for Education, an exemplar civil society movement working to end the global education crisis and GoodWeave International for raising consumer awareness and positive action in the carpet industry.
The Nobel Prize committee said this of Satyarthi, “Being an engineer, he has always had an analytical bent of mind, through which he could get down to the root cause of child labour. He brought to the fore the Triangular Paradigm of child labour, illiteracy and poverty. Pinning down the trafficking of children as a source that feeds into child slavery and other forms of child exploitation, he along with his organisation – through direct interventions, policy advocacy and access to education as part of a sound rehabilitation framework – have saved hundreds of thousands of children from falling prey to trafficking and slavery in India.”
In 2014, Satyarthi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Malala Yousafzai for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.
Satyarthi has dedicated the entire prize sum to the advancement of the rights of children. On January 7, 2015, he handed over his Nobel medal to the President of India, dedicating it to his motherland and its great people. The medal is now permanently displayed at the President’s House Museum in New Delhi.
According to Satyarthi, in a civilized society, there is no place for violence against children. He says, “If a child is denied education and forced to work instead, violence has been inflicted. If a child and its parents are denied opportunities for a promising tomorrow, violence has been inflicted. If a child reels under poverty, violence has been inflicted. If obstacles are laid in the path of a child, inhibiting her progress and development, violence has been inflicted.”
In an interview to Sujeet Rajan of News India Times, Satyarthi, who is visiting New York, speaks about the release of a documentary on him, ‘The Price of Free,’ on November 27 via YouTube, and his continued, inspirational struggle to dismantle the evil forces of child traffickers, who sometimes work in tandem with, and connive with government and law enforcement officials.
Excerpts from the interview:
The release of ‘The Price of Free’ on November 27 via YouTube will coincide with the campaign #GivingTuesday, an international day of giving at the beginning of the Christmas and holiday season. Philanthropy apart, this documentary should be widely watched in India and other countries where there’s rampant child trafficking, atrocities against children continue on a large-scale basis. Are there efforts being made to try make this film available at schools and college campuses across India?
This film needs to be seen by children and people of all backgrounds, privileged, underprivileged, rich, poor. Everyone should be aware of the plight of trafficked children and how traffickers work, to ensure they can no longer take advantage of parents and their children. There is a pattern of how children are trafficked and this film sheds a light on this phenomenon and helps spread awareness of this issue while helping people understand that they too have a role to play in stopping this menace to society. We also plan to use the film to connect with policy makers and law enforcement to ensure they continue to enact and enforce robust laws that protect all children.
We will hold screenings across India to sensitize various audiences at the grassroots level. The primary vehicle for screening this film will be our Mukti Caravan (Campaign on Wheels) and leveraging the network of Ekal Vidyalayas, Kendriya Vidyalayas, DAV and other private and government schools across India. Our hope is that an estimated 100 million children in India will see this film. Following each screening there will be a roundtable discussion with various stakeholders to initiate a dialogue across the country on how we can ensure every child is protected and free.
Did you and director Derek Doneen see eye to eye through the filming of ‘Price of Free’? What was the biggest challenge in making the documentary?
The film essentially documents a number of live incidents that took place including raids to rescue the trafficked children which include working closely with law enforcement. A challenge we had was to convince the police and law enforcement agencies to conduct such raids to free child laborers while also being filmed.
Another challenge we always have to contend with and prepare for when conducting raids is the potential harm that could come to that our volunteers and activists who are vulnerable to attack by traffickers. It is not unusual for traffickers to have the support of powerful criminal groups and in some cases, politicians.
The Nobel Peace has undoubtedly given you a more recognizable, wider platform to help children across the globe. What’s been the reaction of the Indian government to your crusade to eradicate child labor and exploitation?
The Nobel Peace Prize has indeed elevated the issues that I have worked on for years, the plight of vulnerable children who are trafficked. The Government of India has taken significant steps toward finalizing and enacting a strong anti-trafficking law while also strengthening the anti-rape law. Various ministries and government departments have become much more sensitized to the urgency needed to address the issues confronted by children. India has some of the strongest laws on the books to protect children but the real challenge lies in the implementation and enforcement of those laws. My movement has been at the forefront of sensitizing lawmakers and law enforcement across India to ensure all children are protected.
You have been attacked trying to rescue children, as depicted in the documentary. Your life has been under threat many times, your family warned of dire consequences. You had to send your daughter to the US, fearing for her safety. Do corrupt politicians and police continue to harass you as you go on your missions? Importantly, are these individuals in power ever prosecuted?
Rescuing children from slavery certainly puts you at odds with the people who profit from their exploitation. This is not unique to any one country. Two of my colleagues, Adarsh Kishore and Dhoom Das, lost their lives in the course of rescuing children from slavery. Many of us have been brutally attacked on several occasions. While we do everything we can to ensure the safety of both the children and our team members, I have accepted that my personal safety is not nearly as important as that of the world’s children. I have chosen to become their voice at whatever cost.
There have been times when police and local politicians have aided the traffickers. Police have tipped off traffickers before a raid giving them ample time to hide the children. Local politicians have also used their authority and power to make our work much more difficult. However, the law is on our side and prosecutions and convictions do take place, though they can take a rather long time. I do have immense faith in our legal system.
Your work has helped and continues to help millions of children across the `globe. Yet, the task seems insurmountable, especially in a country like India, where children disappear overnight, as many as one every eight minutes, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. What keeps you going? What’s your inspiration?
I have led and conducted several raid and rescue operations over the last four decades. Every time I rescue a child, I feel personally liberated. Tears of joy running down a mother’s cheeks upon seeing her child coming back home give me a sense of joy that cannot be described. In the smiles of children reuniting with their families, I see God. That is my inspiration and the power that reenergizes me every day to keep working toward a day when all children will be free.
And I will not stop until all children are free. At this moment there remain 152 million children trapped in labor and slavery. We all must do whatever we can to bring back the smiles on their faces.
You and your workers and volunteers see so much of evil being directed at children, see and hear heart-breaking stories of cruelty on a daily basis. Do you advise your workers against retaliation, not to take the law into their own hands against people who exploit children?
I have personally led thousands of raid and rescue operations to free children. On several occasions my colleagues and I were brutally assaulted and two of them were killed. However, we have never resorted to violence in our fight to end violence against children. My office has been ransacked. My home was vandalized on several occasions, but we never compromised our values of peace.
Two wrongs can never make a right. We have always rescued children within the stipulations of the legal framework and our country’s constitution. Peace is non-negotiable for us.
What is your advise to NRIs, on how to help poor children in India?
We are all Indians in our hearts and minds, though we may choose to live anywhere in the world. Non-resident Indians, the diaspora, are one of the most powerful global communities, and they command a lot of respect in the developed world due to their compassion and social and economic contributions both to their host countries and to India. You can take an Indian out of India but not India out of an Indian. They have been morally and financially contributing to ensure the freedom of the most vulnerable children not only in India but in the countries where they have been living. I work in over 140 countries. Wherever I go, my fellow Indians join me and offer their fullest support to the cause of protecting all children.