Interview with Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi: Messiah for children


Puja Bhattacharjee | December 24, 2015 | New Delhi

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His unassuming style and down-to-earth personality is the first thing that strikes when you meet him. His crusade against child labour and slavery started in the 1980s with Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement). Since then the messiah for children has liberated more than 84,000 children from the clutches of slavery and trafficking. Behind his modest demeanour lies a firm determination to free children from exploitation. As an architect of the single largest civil society network, the Global March Against Child Labour, he has been instrumental in mobilising unions, civil society and most importantly, children, which led to the adoption of ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour in 1999. Despite a packed schedule, the Nobel Laureate talked to Puja Bhattacharjee on the issue of child rights.

How has your journey been after the Nobel Peace Prize?

I have been working with 2,000 organisations in over 100 countries. Most of them are at the grassroots level besides a few national and regional ones. The Nobel Prize has brought an enormous enthusiasm, empowerment, and interest in them. They say that now the issue of child rights is being recognised and the authorities listen and act. Children are getting freed from slavery, enrolled in schools, and judgments are being delivered by courts on child rights globally.

A few months after I got the award, some policemen in Hyderabad, who were on their way to arrest a criminal, found hundreds of children working as bonded labourers. The children were trafficked from all over India. The police rescued all of them. It was very encouraging. Local authorities are taking up [the matter of] rehabilitation of the rescued children more sincerely now. The most important aspect has been the inclusion of all the demands related to children which my colleagues and I have been campaigning for many years for the sustainable development goals. Eradication of child labour, trafficking, slavery, violence, child marriages and inclusive and equitable education are now in the future development agenda, which is going to be the guiding paper for national action plan for governments.

How has your life changed after the award?

I get more than 18,000 invitations from all over the world. If I start attending all these events it will take me another 100 years from now to complete my work (laughs). The best part is that now organisations and even individuals feel that I am one of them. I am not a celebrity or popular like others in the Nobel club. The common man feels an association with me. 

How did the passion to help children emerge?

When I was around six years old I saw a boy of my age polishing shoes outside my school. At that time I could not make much of the incident but it stayed with me. I started noticing children not going to school and working at roadside dhabas. I tried helping poor children by collecting used books and creating a book bank at the age of 11. I collected thousands of books and lent it to children who could not afford them. Similarly my friends and I opened a tea stall at the local fair. We used to sell tea and snacks and help poor children by paying their school fees with our earnings. 

I was good in science and maths [in school]. My parents wanted me to become an engineer. But I wanted to do something for children. No organisation or individual was fighting child slavery at that time anywhere in the world. India had no specific law on child labour. There was no study, research, or report to learn from. Child rights were not something people comprehended at that time. [Back then] it was a common idea that poor children have to work. My family insisted on opening an orphanage or a school to help poor children. Their suggestions revolved around the notion of poverty and poor children. Even I had no idea what exactly I was going to do. I wanted to free those children but had no idea how to do it. History of child rights is very new. The notion of child rights was not conceptualised until 1989 when the UN convention on child rights was adopted. We learnt as we worked. And now someone like me who started from zero can see the world changing.

What are the major campaigns you are working on?

I have launched Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, a global initiative which is going to address policy, awareness, and engagement gap. The foundation will work on creating a global policy institute, which is going to address all aspects related to children. The international and national policies on child rights are fragmented; as there are many departments which deal with the aspects of child rights in a different manner. The same goes with the UN agencies. A child who is out of school is an easy prey for child labour, slavery, and prostitution. If a child is made a slave or prostitute, he/she can never come to school if additional efforts are not made to rescue him/her. Even if there are schools, teachers won’t bring a child, working as a domestic worker, to school. Education department has no mandate for it. Education and labour departments do not work together. The compartmentalisation in policies and practices is difficult.

In the largest ever social mobilisation in the human history, we are trying to approach 100 million privileged young people in various schools and colleges to become voices for another 100 million left-out children, who are are victims of violence, slavery, lack of education and health facilities. 100 million young people are hungry to express themselves to make the world a better place but do not get an opportunity. If we create a platform for 100 million people to be champions for the cause of 100 million others, we will be able to address an entire generation at one go. It is a five-year long vision. It will take-off from universities and colleges and will involve social media as well as offline campaigns.

Another mandate of our foundation is to scale up the good practices. There are numerous people, organisations, and communities with plenty of success stories to share in different countries. But there is no platform for mutual learning, sharing, analysing and finally using it for policy. That can be from civil society, corporates and the state. The foundation will also work in building capacities, mutual trust and coalitions between the three major players – state, corporate and civil society. The role of corporates and civil society is vital but unfortunately there is a trust deficit between them. We want to bridge that gap. 

What is unique about the Full Stop campaign on child sexual abuse?

Full Stop is different because we are using multiple approaches and engaging multiple actors. We are addressing young children, survivors, as well as potential victims. We are trying to use social media to educate them. Our volunteers are going to schools and neighbourhoods and talking to children about things like ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch’. We are also addressing parents and teachers with simple three words – listen, listen, listen to your child. He or she wanted to say something which you ignored. Parents especially have to listen to children. We are also working with the judiciary and trying to sensitise the police. Laws are important. But implementation is more important.

What kind of support do you need from the government?

The government can help in awareness building; it can expedite the implementation – quick investigation, prosecution and conviction. Out of 95 percent of child sexual abuse cases in India, only five percent have been prosecuted and one percent got conviction. With whom does the accountability lie? The protection of children from sexual offences (POCSO) is a good law. When it comes to implementation, the capacity or the political will or sensitivity among enforcement agencies is missing.

What can be done to help child refugees in Europe today?

The neighbouring countries are trying to accommodate the refugees but they lack resources. It is considered a problem confined only to neighbouring countries and parts of Europe, but it is [actually] a global crisis and the entire international community has to be on it. Four million children have lost access to education in Syria. About half of them are rehabilitated but the other half are still out of school. Those who have been enrolled in schools need comprehensive rehabilitation that includes socio-psychological counselling. The entire international community must respond to it. Every single heart, house, border has to be opened for these refugee children.

Are you satisfied with the work of the national commission for protection of child rights?

The commission exists just on paper. I was among those who had fought for years for setting up such a commission. I met at least two prime ministers and four ministers, before this commission was set up, with the demand that there should be an effective commission with teeth as well as independence and accountability. Money spent on the commission could have been put to better use. If you are a politician you can wait for five years until the next election. But a child whose childhood, health, education is being ruined; whose dignity is being compromised cannot wait for a single minute.

(The interview appears in the December 16-31, 2015 issue)



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