On Friday, Kailash Satyarthi became a Nobel Peace Prize winner, alongside Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. The world has spoken. Children’s rights, and women’s rights, are important. Mr. Satyarthi has over thirty years of human rights experience combatting child slavery and child labor in South Asia. He is a founder of Goodweave, a founder of the South Asian initiative called “Bachpan Bachao Andolan” (BBA), he has been integrally involved in the Global March Against Child Labour, has sat on the Board of numerous other organizations, and tirelessly fought for children’s rights all around the world. His story highlights, for us, the power of the individual, and how much one person can do. His incredible passion and work spotlights the forms of debt bondage common in South Asia, and what can be done to eliminate them from our world.
Child Labor and Child Slavery in South Asia
Child labor in South Asia is a significant problem. Between 1991 and 2001, the Indian government’s census confirmed an increase in child labor: from 11.28 million children to 12.59 million. It has since decreased, but the numbers still remain in the millions. Siddarth Kara, in his book Bonded Labor: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia says that the carpet weaving industry is “especially reliant upon the exploitation of child labor…” This is because their small fingers make them suited to the way in which carpets are woven. This is not to say that child labor and child slavery does not exist in other sectors of South Asian economies. Many of these children are enslaved in some sort of debt-bondage system. The child’s labor is usually either promised as the way in which the debt can be repaid, or the debt is inherited from a family member. Siddarth Kara records, in his book, a conversation with a trafficker who sells children to carpet weavers and brothels in order to provide their parents with money. They usually receive between 90 and 178 dollars per child.
This enslavement of children through a debt system is particularly horrifying. They are not the ones taking on the debt, but they are forced to work to pay it off. Often, these types of schemes involve the traffickers charging the child for their food, their lodging, and whatever other services are offered, in effect indebting them further to the trafficker. Bonded labor makes up a significant percentage of the slavery that still exists today. This is why Mr. Satyarthi was awarded a “Trafficking in Persons Report Hero” award (also called a Hero Acting to End Modern-Day Slavery award) in 2007. That is how I first found out about Mr. Satyarthi, and his work. My job is to create a website celebrating these modern-day abolitionists. Keep an eye out! The website will go online in January 2015.
From a Professor of Electrical Engineering to a Champion of Children’s Rights
Born in the province of Madhya Pradesh, the young Kailash Satyarthi pursued a degree in electrical engineering. After graduating, he spent several years teaching at a college. In his late twenties, however, he abandoned his career in the private sector, and began fighting against bonded labor, and for the rights of children in South Asia. Since that day, he has freed an estimated 83,000 or more children from bonded labor. His original NGO, BBA, began, in the early part of this millennium, to create governance bodies where children could have a voice in their communities, and to focus on how education could help prevent and stop child labor. They also still participate in rescue operations.
Mr. Satyarthi himself has been brutally beaten several times during rescue operations. In 2004, he was taken to the hospital after being assaulted during a rescue operation of children from a circus. His resume is so long that to go through the whole thing would take up too much of your time, so let me highlight some of his most incredible achievements. He led the Global March Against Child Labour. While this is now an organization that networks between trade unions and other civil society organizations, it began as a literal march in 1998 around the world which culminated in a march upon the ILO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The march was 80,000 kilometers long, and crossed 103 countries. That year, the ILO drafted Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, which has been ratified by 177 of the 185 ILO member states. The countries that haven’t ratified the Convention are Cuba, Eritrea, India, the Marshall Islands, Palau, and Tuvalu.
In 1994, Mr. Satyarthi founded an organization called Rugmark. This has since changed into what we know as Goodweave. According to their 2012 annual report, Mr. Satyarthi realized, even as he was just beginning his battle against child labor, that he had to not only fight to free the children enslaved, but also seek to reduce the demand by ensuring that people could buy carpets that were free from the evils of child exploitation. The organization does this by certifying that carpets and rugs are made without child labor. The first carpets with their stamp of approval were shipped in 1995. Since that date, they have 112 companies that have joined them in this effort, they have inspected over 220 thousand supply chains, they have rescued over 3,400 children, they have educated thousands more, and have generated over a million dollars of revenue from their sales that they have put back into social programs.
Mr. Satyarthi says that his work is borne out of a personal necessity. Once you know about this issue, how can you do anything other? As he said in an ABC interview: “If I was not fighting against child labor, I don't know what else I could do. It was always in my heart, I could not live without that.”
What Can I Do?
You can do so much! Let me suggest some ways that you can support the work of people like Mr. Satyarthi. First, get inspired. His story is an incredible testament to how much one person can do when they care deeply about an issue. Let’s get out there and work to end these horrifying practices anywhere they are found around the world. Second, buy fair trade. Goodweave only does rugs, but plenty of other organizations are in the same sort of business, certifying that the products you buy are slave labor free. (Check out how many slaves currently work for YOU: http://slaveryfootprint.org/). If you need a rug, look for products certified by Goodweave. Third, get educated. The resources we have on this site will help you to understand the issues on a deeper level. Maybe you can even meander over to our directory of organizations, or look where you might volunteer. Fourth, spread the word. Mr. Satyarthi became involved in fighting for children’s rights because he became aware of the problem. Let us make sure that the world knows that the exploitation of children is unacceptable because we, as the world community, will not stand for it.
Caleb Benadum is the Program Manager for the Trafficking in Persons Report Global Heroes Network, an upcoming web-based project planned for January 2015. He graduated from Capital University with a degree in Philosophy, and the University of Cincinnati Law School with a Juris Doctor degree. Having spent much of his life overseas, he is committed to modern-day abolitionism and the promotion of human rights around the world.