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India Nobel Winner Fights Against Child Slavery

by AFP
Bobby Bank—AFP

Bobby Bank—AFP

Kailash Satyarthi says he is delighted at the Nobel Prize’s recognition of the fight for child rights.

Kailash Satyarthi, named co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, has freed tens of thousands of Indian children forced into slavery by businessmen, landowners and others.

Born on Jan. 11, 1954, Satyarthi has been at the forefront of the drive against child labor in India where the practice is rife. Trained as an electrical engineer, Satyarthi founded the Bachpan Bachao Andolan or Save the Childhood Movement in 1980. He lives modestly and keeps a low profile except for his causes.

The activist, born in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, said he was “delighted” by the Nobel award, according to the Press Trust of India, and described it as “recognition” for the fight for child rights.

He began his work by staging raids on Indian manufacturing, rug-making and other plants where children and their parents often work as bonded labor. Under bonded labor, families often borrow money and have to work till the funds can be repaid. But often the money is too much to be paid back from meager earnings and people are sold and resold.

Building on his initial activism, Satyarthi organized the Global March Against Child Labor in the 1990s—dedicated to freeing the millions of children abused worldwide in a form of modern slavery. He and co-winner Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan were honored by the Norwegian Nobel Committee “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

“To employ children is illegal and unethical,” Satyarthi said on the Global March Against Child Labor website. “If not now, then when? If not you, then who? If we are able to answer these fundamental questions, then perhaps we can wipe away the blot of human slavery,” Satyarthi said, summing up his philosophy.

The activist is also founder of RugMark, a widely known international scheme that tags all carpets made in factories that are child-labor free.

He described the plight of children forced into the worst kinds of abusive work in a 2010 interview with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. “If they cry for their parents, they are beaten severely, sometimes hanged upside down from trees and even branded or burned with cigarettes,” he said.

He also spearheads the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, among other groups, and helps oversee a transition center in Rajasthan where newly freed laborers learn fresh skills.

Satyarthi has said his social conscience was awoken when he was six and noticed a boy his age on the steps outside the school with his father, cleaning shoes. Seeing many such children working instead of being educated, he felt an urge as he grew older to solve the problem, launching him on his career of activism.

“I think of it all as a test. This is a moral examination that one has to pass … to stand up against such social evils,” he said in the Kennedy Center interview.

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