«Child labor perpetuates poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, population growth and other social problems.» — Kailash Satyarthi
On October 10th, I was woken up by my phone ringing at 6:50 a.m. A colleague was calling to ask a question about the Nobel Peace Prize winners, Indian child labor activist Kailash Satyarthi and 17-year-old Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai.
That was how I learned that these two trailblazers were being given one of the highest honors imaginable, the Nobel Peace Prize, «for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.»
In making the award, the Nobel Prize committee said they «regarded it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.»
The two activists were born nearly a half century apart with different religions and to different countries, yet their work goes hand in hand since child laborers need to have someone also championing their right to equitable, quality education.
If Yousafzai wasn’t already a household name before winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she is now. The media attention has been near constant since the Taliban shot her in the head two years ago for advocating for the rights of girls to access education in Pakistan. Most people wouldn’t have been able to overcome such an attack, yet it made Yousafzai all the more of a tireless education activist and leader.
But who is Satyarthi? Education advocates like myself know him and his incredible work well, and understand just how much he has earned this honor.
Kailash Satyarthi was born to a middle class family in Madhya Pradesh, India in 1954. He studied electrical engineering in college, and then received a post-graduate diploma in high voltage engineering — a degree that seems fitting for someone whose work is grounded in unwavering energy, bravery, faith, and perseverance against great odds.
After a brief career as a professor, Satyarthi decided to follow his life’s passion and devote his time and energy to combating child labor and child slavery.
It’s No Small Mission
According to the International Labor Organization, an estimated 21 million children are forced into labor around the world, which means there are more slaves now than ever before in history. The ILO also asserts that some «168 million child laborers are in need of immediate and urgent help.»
While child labor is not the same as child slavery, it can have a devastating impact on children’s education, development, and future earnings.
UNICEF stresses that while child labor infringes «on the rights of all children — boys and girls alike — girls often start working at an earlier age than boys, especially in rural areas where most working children are found.»
Satyarthi and his friends founded Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA, which translates to Save Childhood Movement) in 1980, and over the last 34 years they’ve been involved in the rescue of more than 70,000 bonded child laborers.
That’s roughly the number of children you’d expect to find in 156 average-sized elementary schools in the U.S. It’s also around the same number of children enrolled in Montgomery County, Maryland’s more than 140 public elementary schools.
This one organization has freed that many children from bonded labor. And BBA has even launched a successful model for educating and rehabilitating children who have been freed, so that they might have brighter futures.
Satyarthi is something of a modern-day Mahatma Gandhi. Ghandi’s quote «Be the change you want to see in the world» is very much a call to action for Satyarthi.
Satyarthi has followed Gandhi’s example of social activism, leading hundreds of peaceful protests and marches focused on ending the exploitation of children for financial profit.
In 1998, he organized the Global March Against Child Labor across 103 countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the U.S., with the participation of over 7.2 million people and 20,000 civil society organizations.
The march was highly successful, and the next year the international convention on the worst forms of child labor (ILO Convention 182) was revised.
Satyarthi is also a driving force behind End Child Slavery Week, which will take place from November 20-26, 2014. Participants in this global week of action will call on the United Nations to incorporate the abolition of child slavery into the next round of UN global goals (called the post-2015 development agenda), and could make a tremendous difference for millions of children around the world.
In global development efforts, what gets measured gets attention. Satyarthi knows how critically important it is that efforts to abolish child slavery be measured through the next round of the UN’s global goals, which will be launched in January 2016.
The sheer numbers that Satyarthi is able to mobilize around one of the world’s greatest, but least-known, ills is nothing short of astounding.
Satyarthi’s achievements have a personal dimension for me.
I first met Satyarthi back in 1999 after he’d organized the Global March. I remember thinking then that I was talking with an amazingly powerful and inspirational activist, who would truly change the world.
I didn’t know at the time (or when I met with him three weeks ago at a UN General Assembly side meeting) that Satyarthi would receive a Nobel Peace Prize for his transformative work, but I did know that he was an incredible leader and change agent.
I’ve always thought that the most powerful and admirable leaders also have a strong sense of humility. It seems to me that he has humility in spades.
I’m grateful that this Nobel Peace Prize will raise awareness about the often forgotten connection between child labor, child slavery, and access to equitable education for all, including the most marginalized children.
The work Satyarthi does, often alongside education and learning advocates around the world like myself, has the ability to go even further than eliminating child labor and slavery. It can help lift entire communities and nations out of poverty and help put them on a path toward universal access to quality education for all.