“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
— Nelson Mandela, Former President of South Africa
Imagine a pair of little hands assembling toys. But they dare not play with the toys for fear of punishment. Imagine a pair of eyes that have not seen daylight in months, even years. Because those hands and eyes belong to a child who is a commodity. In places across India and the world, housed in dinghy conditions, children as young as 7 years of age, slave away year after year. They exist to work for the benefit and enjoyment of the entitled. They have no voice, no rights, no childhood. Theirs is the sound of silence.
There are a select few among us, who make it their life’s work to represent and speak for such children, and fight to reclaim their dignity. It was my privilege to speak to Kailash Satyarthi – the man who has been at the center of the children s’ rights movement in India since the 1980s. The recipient of several awards, Mr. Satyarthi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
India Currents writer Pavani Kaushik (P.K.) had an opportunity to have an exclusive interview with Kailash Satyarthi. (K.S.) The text of the interview is given below.
P.K: Namaste Kailash ji! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with India Currents. As a mother, as an Indian American, it is a matter of great pride to be able to do this interview with you today! Looks like you are back after a lot of travel?
K.S: Yes. Once the Nobel Prize committee gives you a medal of peace, they take away your ‘peace’ for the rest of your life! (laughs) I am quite used to travel, having been involved in multiple causes, working across 140 countries. As the founder of two large societal coalitions, Global Campaign for Education and Global March against child labor, my life does involve a considerable amount travel.
P.K: Bachpan Bachao Aandolan was your first major initiative, correct?
K.S: That is right. BBA was founded in 1981, and it still exists as the mother of all the others which came later. We focused in India initially, and then formed other coalitions, in Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh, to make sure we could extend our help to those communities.
P.K: And now with the Nobel Peace Prize, you have a bigger voice, a further reach, a larger umbrella naturally. I looked up your biography online as research for this interview. Born in Madhya Pradesh as Kailash Sharma, subsequent change in last name to Satyarthi , the recipient of several awards etc etc… but I’d like to know about the ‘Man’ within these details.
K.S: I don’t think of myself as a man – I still consider myself a child! (laughs) For me, childhood does not mean just the age factor. Childhood means so much more – transparency, a thirst for learning, curiosity – all these are related to childhood. I feel strongly that there is a child inside each of us. But we keep suppressing him/her all the time and we try to be more mature. And maturity brings artificiality, diplomacy, sometimes falsehood. A child does not care to do things only to make others happy. A child is very straight forward. This quality is something to be preserved. And it is the foundation for my inspiration and learning.
P.K: I’m looking at the list of awards you have received over the years, starting from 1993 – Elected Ashoka Fellow Award, the Robert. F. Kennedy Human Rights Award – to name a couple. Obviously the Nobel Peace Prize is a distinct honor. It is a matter of pride for India, for Indians abroad and for activists all over the world. Can you speak about how this award is helping to carry your voice?
K.S: Yes, it has definitely helped me spread my message further. But I do not consider this award solely in my honor. The Nobel Peace Prize has been a major recognition for those most deprived, neglected and marginalized lot of humanity – the children who are enslaved and trafficked. I always say that I represent the “voice of silence.” They are my children – those who are hidden under the cloak of invisibility. So now that people have started to recognize my children – it is the greatest award for me!
P.K: Please tell us more about the mascot of your organization – not only is it visually very appealing, but the story behind it is also intriguing. To me it speaks of incessant quest and total optimism – in the form of a hummingbird.
K.S: I completely agree! But it came about as a coincidence – something totally unexpected. When I was delivering my Nobel acceptance speech, I realized I had left my notes behind! My team and everyone there were nervous for me because this was going to be telecast live! But I was actually more comfortable speaking impromptu. I recalled in that moment, a story from my childhood. The tale is set in a forest where one day there is a fire. As all the animals are fleeing away from the fire; King Lion spots a tiny hummingbird flying towards the flame carrying droplets of water in his beak. When he is mocked by the lion, the hummingbird responds that he will fight the fire – one droplet at a time. This has been my philosophy, in life, and with the work that I do. So I began my acceptance speech, with this story, with a moral worth learning about. I think the audience appreciated it! (laughs)
P.K: What made you pick up the mantle as the person who speaks for children? Tell us something about the journey so far.
K.S: When I started my work in 1981, there was never a question that I do anything other than what I chose to do for children s’ rights. It was a non-issue for me. The conventional wisdom was to collect money or help with charity. And it stopped there. I realized something more should be done. The denial of freedom and human dignity was so deeply rooted. It was non-negotiable. So this inspired me to give up my career.
At that time no one was talking about child slavery and child trafficking. As a country, India did not have any laws to address these issues. Even on the international scene there was no legislation that provided me with a path to undertake. The U.N convention on the Rights of Children was adopted by the General Assembly in 1989.
So in 1981 I started fighting a lonely battle! I had the beginnings of a vision but had no idea about how to make it a reality. I faced total ignorance about these issues and when we brought in strong activism, ignorance turned into denial. People did not want to believe that this problem existed among them. We even faced opposition in the form of local mafia being set against us. So it was a long journey as you can imagine!
P.K: How does your family, your wife Sumedha, your children – handle the dangers associated with your work? Obviously the values your have imparted have made a big effect on them.
K.S: Sumedha was part of the whole movement right from the beginning. We did not have much money or materialistic wealth to give our children. There were dangers of course. When we finally got a telephone, it came with death threats made against me and my family! Slowly they gained courage and understood what my wife and I stood for. They helped with the children in the Ashram during their free time. That is how they grew up. My son Bhuvan is a lawyer and he handles most of the legal work for our cause. The cases he has handled have made a huge impact in the legal and judicial discourse in India.
P.K: The Global March Against Child Labor and Global Campaign for Education is work that is continuing and comes under the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation umbrella. Also, Good Weave International which started out as Rug Mark. Are these extensions of the KSCF banner?
K.S: Not really. Right from day one, I started these campaigns with the idea that I will pass on the leadership to others. My idea was to create first and second level leadership and ensure the sustainability of these organizations, so they can function without me being around all the time. This method was helpful in making them autonomous bodies. All these organizations have a relationship with KSCF and they consider me a mentor, initiator and founder. Global March and KSCF offices are housed in the same building which allows interaction. But they operate independently of each other.
P.K: Bharat Yatra was a massive social ‘wave’ which happened recently. Could we hear your thoughts on that movement?
K.S: Bharat Yatra has been an unprecedented success! About a million people took to the streets to condemn and speak out against child sexual abuse. This has never happened before in India. They also demanded strong policy measures to be enforced. This was a turning point. The preparation process for the Bharat Yatra began about a year before we launched. The idea was to see how people’s response to something this large scale would be.
The most encouraging response came from the youth. Thousands of young girls and boys in schools and colleges across India marched with us. Some even came up to me to say “you are telling MY story”! Many appeared on the stage before hundreds of people and said they were breaking their silence to speak out about their own experiences. This was the most satisfying part of the Yatra for me personally. I consider this the beginning of my “war” on rape.
P.K: KCSF has a presence within India and globally as well. They obviously have similar goals, because as you rightly said, the emancipation of children in slavery is a universal issue. Can you recall and speak of a few cases of rescue that you were directly involved with?
K.S: There are hundreds and thousands of cases since I’ve started my work. But recently there is personal recognition when I go out in the field. So that sometimes works against my team. The children can be removed before we even manage to reach the factories or places where they are being held. Despite this, we have managed to successfully do our part. I will speak about a couple of cases, the first rescue and the most recent.
The first incident was the rescue of a group of people which had children, men and women, in 1981. I had started a magazine titled Sangharsh Jaari Rahega – The Struggle Shall Go On – dedicated to educating the public about the problem of child slavery and the struggles of marginalized people. One day a man named Wasal Khan, knocked on my door in Delhi. He was a desperate father whose 15 year old daughter Sabo, was about to be sold to a brothel. He told me how he, along with his wife and a few others from his village were ‘”taken to work with the promise of a good salary and a good life,” to a place about 400 km. from his village in Punjab. The hours were long and the conditions deplorable. So they ended up in slavery – no money, no freedom, while working on brick kilns for close to 17 years. In these conditions, children were born, people lived and died. It was shocking that in the year 1981, in the largest democracy in the world, people were being subjected to this sort of slavery!
I felt very strongly that I should not limit myself to simply writing about his case. I managed to raise a little money by mortgaging my wife’s wedding jewelry, gathered a group of people and went to the site. The poor man was caught by the owner of the kiln and I was thrown out of the compound along with my people.
I returned empty handed but not with an empty heart. With the help of a friend who was a lawyer we took the matter to the courts. And we managed to secure the release of all those men, women and children – including 15 year old Sabo. 36 people were freed that day! This was the first documented incident where children were freed from slavery through a private/voluntary initiative. And this gave me a clear path that I started charting. Within a few weeks after this incident, people started bringing other cases to my notice. And I never looked back.
The most recent one was only few months ago. This was the rescue of children locked inside bathrooms and held on roof tops in a factory in Delhi. The conditions were unimaginable. The children ranged in ages from 7 – 10 or 11 years. They were working – making toys. When I sat with them and asked about their working and living conditions, they claimed they were very happy, and I could see that they were simply repeating what they had been told to say. They were threatened that the police would come and arrest them if they said anything else.
When I asked the youngest child if he got a chance to play with the toys he helped make, he said no – he was not allowed to. If they made a mistake like that, they were beaten up. Apparently the last time he had played was in his village, with sticks and stones, which were his toys! He also said he missed playing with those stones! What was ironic was that in this day and age, when we claim to have made so many advancements in technology, these children were living in such deplorable conditions right in Delhi.
We conducted a second raid on the same day and also managed to free a bunch of children from a neighboring factory where they were sewing jeans. And they were brought to our ashram – Mukti Ashram – also in Delhi. The next morning we noticed these children were trying to shade their faces and eyes in the sunlight. That is when we discovered that for 3 years that they were kept inside a basement of the factory! They were forced to live, work, eat and sleep in that basement. And they had not seen daylight for 3 whole years! Imagine that!
P.K: How do you close the loop? What happens after the rescue? Are their families ok with the rescue? In many cases the children must be helping with the families’ livelihood in some meager way. Are they supportive of your efforts?
K.S: We have freed roughly 86,000 children to date. In most cases their parents or relatives approach us, because some children are kidnapped or trafficked, and in some cases the parents are cheated and fooled into giving up their children in the hopes that they will earn a livelihood. We then investigate the cases, with the help of local police, but also by ourselves. Only then do we undertake the rescue operation or the raids. Once they are freed, we bring them to the rehabilitation center in Delhi, Mukti Ashram. They stay with us for a few days/weeks before they are reunited with their families.
While they are with us, we ensure that legal formalities and medical checkups are undertaken. This helps us ensure that they receive all the rehabilitation benefits due to them under schemes sponsored by the Govt. of India. I have fought for years to make sure that there are schemes in place where the parents and families of such children can get some monetary compensation, so they may not push their children into the workforce again. Sometimes compensation takes time getting to where it needs to go, because of bureaucratic and legal issues. Many times these folks do not have bank accounts or the necessary I.D cards etc. It can be a cumbersome process.
In the meantime we bring such selected cases into a long term rehabilitation center, Bal Ashram, which is situated en route to Jaipur, Rajasthan. We have two such long term centers, one for girls and the other for boys. Children can stay for at least a year. The younger children are given basic education so they can transition to the school system in their native villages. The older kids, 14 years and above, are taught various skills. This way after their parents get the rehabilitation remuneration, the children can then help the family by using their vocational skills.
P.K: For all the cases of successful rescues and rehabilitation, I am sure there are cases when the children fall through the cracks and return to their previous conditions. Have you encountered cases like that?
K.S: For the most part we have not had any of our children trained in our Bal Ashram system, falling by the wayside. Because we try to see to it that it is not just education and training they receive, we also help build their self esteem and self confidence, which helps them take control of their childhood and their lives. But in some cases, because of limited space constraints, we make sure they return to their families and to the local schools near their homes. We have local activists and volunteers who do followup visits with the families. In some cases the families migrate to towns and cities in search of work. It becomes difficult to track them in such situations.
P.K: You also have the Bal Mitra Gram concept. Can you speak about that concept?
K.S: Sure. It has been my dream to make the whole world child-friendly, which is easier said than done! Very often the village communities are where child marriages and trafficking etc take place. So the whole idea behind Bal Mitra Gram was to transform the community at the village level – to make them child-friendly.
The first condition is – all children are free from the fears of abuse and exploitation of any sort.
The second condition is – all children irrespective of gender, caste or community are enrolled in schools.
The third condition is – all village children have a chance to form a governing body – called Bal Panchayat. This helps shape them as responsible individuals and to solve their problems through positive governing methods.
The fourth condition – that the Village Panchayat – the elected assembly of village elders – agrees to not just recognize the Bal Panchayat, but also work hand-in-hand with them, by inviting youth leaders to official Panchayat meetings and vice versa.
When these four important conditions are met, the whole village becomes child-friendly.
P.K: That sounds idyllic! Have you implemented these four conditions? Are there villages that are truly child-friendly?
K.S: We have about 560 villages where we have managed this to date! In many cases the youth leaders are the very children who have been freed from child labor. We have about 400 girls who have been elected as Heads of the Bal Panchayats! This is a matter of pride for us! It is my belief that if politicians, leaders, NGOs, corporate bodies, all come together and resolve to protect one generation, then there is no need to worry about the generations of the future.
P.K: Now Kailashji, when you undertake the kind of work you have done, there is always equal parts reward and criticism that you will face. It has been said that your work is a case of altruism gone wrong, that the children are being freed against their will – because the money they are bringing in makes a huge difference to their families. That is is acceptable for the children to learn the trade the families engage in. How do you respond to things like this?
K.S: There are micro and macro level issues – At the micro level, we try to explain to the families of these children how their lives would change when their children can better themselves, with education, with vocational training. We also try to connect them with Government schemes that are already in place. We have volunteers and former child labor victims who take social messages to the villages through street theater staged using local dialects and languages to create awareness. So these are two ways in which we can sensitize the village population to see things differently.
We have a very strong argument that there is a direct relationship between adult unemployment and child labor. Globally 216 million children are engaged in economic activities. Out of this, there are about 152 million children engaged as full-time child laborers. If you draw a comparison with the existing number of youth/adult unemployed globally, the number is 210 million. It is a proven fact that 71% of children are working in the agricultural sector globally. And there is a direct correlation to the number of jobless, unemployed adults! This vicious circle must be broken.
In today’s digital economy, we cannot think of social justice, equality, growth or ways to get rid of poverty in personal or social life without an education. These 216 million children are being denied their chance at escape, by denying them education. So I have been advocating a triangular paradigm to show that – child labor, poverty and illiteracy – form a three way relationship. This is a cause and consequence relationship.
The criticism is part of my work. But the numbers speak for themselves.
P.K: You recently spoke at a the International Labor Organization’s conference on the Eradication of Child Labor in Buenos Aires in November 2017. One of the headlines that emerged was that we are losing the war against the eradication of child labor. And that we have to take drastic measures to alter this reality. What are your thoughts and feelings after having attended this conference?
K.S: I was addressing all three key events, the Opening, the Solution Panel, and the Closing at this conference. In my opening remarks, I strongly emphasized that political will which is needed. We need to change the prevalent rhetoric, and change the language. I realize there are always ups and downs in this struggle. But the challenge has to be done with optimism and hope. Between 2000 and 2012, almost 100 million children were saved from slavery. The pace slowed down between 2012 and 2016.
P.K: One of the goals the ILO aspires towards is that by the year 2025, we have to end child labor in all its forms. Standing where you are in your fight today, are you hopeful that this goal will be attained?
K.S: It is very difficult, but it is not impossible. The global fight against child labor needs to be revitalized. This cannot happen only through conventional projects. We need a more coordinated and integrated approach between the Education and Labor Ministries. There is a lot of compartmentalization between various ministries which makes progress slow.
Technology can be put to good use through facial recognition of traffickers while protecting the identities of children. This is not necessarily expensive or difficult to implement, but the question is whether there is political will to make this a priority. Having said this, I am quite optimistic!
P.K: How can our readers get involved with your cause?
K.S: There are several ways for individuals to join forces with us. One way is through the KSCF website, pledging their support through activism or donations.
Legislation in India is changing – becoming more progressive. India has also ratified ILO conventions on minimum age. These are recent developments which augur well to encourage positive change. Another recent technological development has been the initiation of a web portal called ‘PENCIL’ where complaints can easily be lodged when cases of child labor or trafficking are found anonymously. It makes it easier to take punitive action.
We have launched a campaign called “100 Million For 100 Million.” The idea behind it is that for every 100 million victims of violence and child labor, there are at least another 100 million – who are idealistic, enthusiastic, educated, and filled with a zeal to help with causes. This is essentially a youth movement. Individuals who register on this website –100million.org – can be the change makers online as well as in the field, protesting and participating to help bring about change.
Most importantly they should break the silence and speak out on atrocities against children. That is the first step.
P.K: I found a book written by Rosie Katz – a little girl from Kentucky. She writes about her experience meeting you – during a visit you made to her school. She calls you one of her heroes! So while you are continuing your work, I found it heartening to know that it has made an impact on a little girl. Your message is getting through to the activists of tomorrow – through the voice of this child.
K.S: Yes! I recall meeting this little girl, but I did not see the final version of her book. I was only shown her sketch – the basic draft. I am so moved to see her efforts, and to know that the message has reached others through her!
The Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation (KSCF) is pleased to announce that feature-length documentary “KAILASH,” a film on Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi has been selected to premiere in the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, which runs from January 18 – 28 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah. The documentary is produced by Participant Media, a leading media company dedicated to entertainment that inspires and compels social change. This is indeed a proud moment for KSCF – the film is a recognition of Kailashji’s efforts and an opportunity to spread awareness about the cause.
Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. She has held art shows in London, Bangalore and locally here in California.