By H.D. Wright
Kailash Satyarthi is an Indian social reformer who campaigned against child labour in India and advocated the universal right to education. In 2014, he was the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Malala Yousafzai, “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” He is the founder of multiple social activist organizations, including Bachpan Bachao Andolan, Global March Against Child Labour, Global Campaign for Education and Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation.
Kailash Satyarthi and his team at Bachpan Bachao Andolan have liberated more than 90,000 children in India from child labour, slavery, and trafficking. In 1998, Satyarthi conceived and led the Global March against Child Labour, an 80,000 km march across 103 countries to put forth a global demand against the worst forms of child labour. This became one of the largest social movements ever on behalf of exploited children. The demands of the marchers, which included children and youth (particularly the survivors of trafficking for forced labour, exploitation, sexual abuse, illegal organ transplants, armed conflict, etc.) were reflected in the draft of the ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour. The following year, the Convention was unanimously adopted at the ILO Conference in Geneva.
Satyarthi was among Fortune magazine's "World's Greatest Leaders" in 2015 and featured in LinkedIn's Power Profiles List in 2017 and 2018. Satyarthi led a nationwide march, Bharat Yatra, in India covering 19,000 km in 35 days, to demand for legislation against child rape, child sexual abuse and trafficking.
Recently, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet Mr. Satyarthi before an event he was speaking at. As we waited in an anteroom adjacent to the stage he was about to take, I asked him about his experience as a global activist and the role of youth in the struggle for a safer and more equitable world. The following remarks come from this conversation and his ensuing speech.
Mr. Satyarthi first spoke of his childhood, painting a picture of his experience growing up in a rather “modest family.” He recounted that his father was a policeman who unfortunately passed away when he was young. As a young student, he recalls, “I was good at math and science and my parents thought I should be an electrical engineer, so that’s what I went to school for.” While studying in those particular fields, Mr. Satyarthi eventually realized that he did not want to continue on this career path, asserting, “You lose the truth inside you when you pursue profits.”
Mr. Satyarthi then began to describe two powerful stories that played major roles in shaping the person he is today. He related that on the first day of school as a young student, he saw a cobbler and his son working. He described experiencing a feeling of bewilderment, “I wondered why this child was not in the classroom with the rest of us.” After asking a number of people why this child was working while he and his friends were in school, having received no satisfactory answer, he gathered the courage to ask the child’s father. The father responded, “Because of the Indian caste system.” Later, Mr. Satyarthi’s father further explained, “You are born to go to school, he is born to work.” It didn’t seem fair that he and this boy were born to live such different lives. Mr. Satyarthi said, “They were denied their dreams,” and, “I thought it was not right.”
Mr. Satyarthi had come face to face with a systemic issue facing his country. His response: “I refused to accept that any child is born to be enslaved forever.” As a result of this powerful event, Mr. Satyarthi came to understand that the issue of child slavery was tearing apart his country, and being left completely unaddressed. So, he decided to take matters into his own hands at the age of eleven after noticing that some of his best friends were leaving school because their families could not afford to buy them textbooks. Thus, Mr. Satyarthi’s effort to provide every child with an education began with this small observation in his hometown.
Mr. Satyarthi recollected that he immediately convinced his friend to rent a pull car with him, a cart used for selling fruits and vegetables. Mr. Satyarthi gathered everyone in town to listen to him speak. He stood on the cart and yelled, “Everyone, listen to me!” He recounted urging the massive crowd to think of the boys that did not have books and to pitch in some of their own money to help. His words left an impression on the crowd, and as a result, someone dropped a book onto the cart. Then, another person dropped a second book, and then a third. Books began to pile up on the cart, and like wildfire, everyone began to pitch in their books. After only a few hours, more than 2,300 books had been collected. “Everyone put in a book: entire families, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, everyone.” Mr. Satyarthi told us that, following his speech, many schools joined in the effort, and soon he had collected over 10,000 books.
“No child in my town was without a book,” he said. “If you put aside your shyness and go to the people with a good cause, the world is theirs to help.” These two powerful stories, he said, were the beginnings his effort to end child slavery. The seeds of these experiences eventually grew into his global campaign, which currently operates in 150+ countries around the world. When asked how he achieved so much, Mr. Satyarthi responded, “Good planning and strategy leads to more impactful action.” He continued, “Sometimes the smallest seeds can gain momentum and change the world.”
This drive to make change and help others, according to Mr. Satyarthi, comes from “Feeling as if the suffering of others is your own.”
Mr. Satyarthi then began to discuss the work that he carries out today in villages across India providing children with access to basic necessities. He spoke of how dangerous his work could be at times and recounted being attacked by radicals that did not support his cause. One specific attack resulted in injuries to his left foot, ribs, and shoulder. In addition, Mr. Satyarthi was left with scars on his head and body. Yet, this violence did not dissuade him from his mission, “Each time I woke up, I smiled as I realized I was still alive, and that these people felt threatened. It only empowered me more.”
To conclude, Mr. Satyarthi left us with a call to action: “Young people are the most important thing in making the world a better place. They are more pure and enthusiastic and moral. I call on each one of you to be their champion. You are the hope, you are each a leader. If you have the courage to listen to the call of your heart right now, the world will follow you one day.”
To learn more and support Mr. Satyarthi and his team’s goal of ending child exploitation, visit this page and take action: