Spotlight Exclusives

Ending Child Poverty and Exploitation

Exclusive interview with 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi Exclusive interview with 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi, posted on

Kailash Satyarthi has spent over three decades fighting child bondage and poverty in India and across the globe. His work has led to the rescue of over 80,000 children from exploitative working conditions and in 2014 Satyarthi was a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Spotlight had the chance to sit down with Satyarthi and discuss the linkages between child exploitation and poverty, his work on global children۪s freedom, and challenges here in the United States. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Can you talk about your work as a children’s rights advocate and how you’ve been able to make such an enormous impact?

When I started my fight against child labor in India in 1981, it was not acknowledged as an issue. People thought it was a part of life. They thought it was just povertypoor children are working. But I was never convinced, because it is not simply poverty, it is the denial of human rights, basic rights, and the dignity of a human being.

I started taking direct action, freeing children from bonded labor, slavery, and child labor. And that sparked some momentum and attention in the media and society and eventually from politicians. India did not have any domestic law against child labor until 1986. I started in 1981, so it took 5 years to have a law.

We started building social consciousness and awareness about this issue. And we also fought for good policies and laws, and then enforcement of those laws. We were forced to go to court again and again.

Then we realized child labor was growing in the export industry so we had to launch a consumer surveillance campaign and also some sort of social monitoring and certification-labeling mechanism.

So it was a combination of several things, but most important was to initiate a campaign for education because child labor and illiteracy are two sides of the same coin. We cannot win one at a time, we have to fight on both.

We have launched big events and big campaigns, including a long march across India demanding change in the constitution. Finally, the Indian constitution has been amended, and education has been accepted as a fundamental human right.

You emphasize the need to attack the root causes of child exploitation. What are these foundational challenges that give rise to these problems, and how do you address them?

I have been advocating on a triangular paradigm of child developmentso poverty, illiteracy, and child exploitation. They are causes and consequences of each other. And that۪s why it is necessary that we attack all of these aspects: poverty, child, slavery, and education.

Today, 168 million children around the world work as child laborers, 200 million adults are jobless. Why are children forced to work, and why are their parents jobless? Because children are the cheapest source of labor. You cannot get rid of unemployment and poverty of adult people without elimination of child labor.

Then, we also see that over 120 million children are not enrolled in primary schooling.

If you connect these puzzles and try to see the parallel, then it is very clear that if you allow child labor to continue, then education can never be achieved.

And those people who are illiterate are the biggest sufferers of poverty. Almost a billion people are living in acute poverty, almost a billion people live hungry, and almost a billion people are illiterate. These parallels have to be seen. Poverty and illiteracy and exploitation and hunger and violence are interconnected.

Given that we live in an interconnected global economy, do you think America and other developed countries are in a meaningful sense complicit in child poverty overseas and the exploitation of children?

It is not only the economy which is interconnected. The threats in the world are also very interconnected. I think Americans understand this well after 9/11. People were shocked because many Americans thought they were living on an island of security. But it has opened the eyes of people and shown that terrorism and fundamentalism are not a localized problem, they are a global problem and a global threat.

Similarly, poverty and human slavery are equally interconnected. People think they are economic issues, but they are part of geopolitics. What kind of policies are made and executed matters a lot. That۪s why people who knowingly buy products made by child slaves because they are cheap must realize they are part of this crime.

Look at what has happened in Burma recently that has killed so many people, or the Rana Plaza incident where suddenly people woke up and realized they had a moral responsibility and obligation to worker safety in Bangladesh. So it is very important that people have a global outlook.

Do you see any connections between the issues you are working on at a global scale and some of the challenges children here in America might be facing?

Several hundred thousand children are working in the agriculture sector here in the United States. Many of the children are local, many others are immigrants, or sometimes trafficked children who are brought from neighboring Hispanic countries. They work in fields and farms and in quite unsafe conditions, so it is the issues of safety, poverty, and freedom. All this is compromised in those cases where the children and young people are working in the agriculture sector. Also, we see young people working in sweatshops in any number of places. So there is some parallel definitely.

If someone reads this interview and is inspired to get involved in these issues, how would you advise them to go about doing so? How can someone living here in America be most effective in stopping the exploitation of children overseas?

The young people especially, who are much better connected with social media, should not keep themselves so narrow and selfish. Many young people are on their smart phone, but their connectivity is very limited.

I think that social media should be used to build the value of global citizenship. And that means how to use social media and the Internet to know more about the issues in the world and the solutions and then respond.

About 4,000 girls have been kidnapped and taken hostage in Syria and parts of Iraq by ISIS, and these girls are being sold for less than the price of a cigarette pack. If it continues like that we are not safe.

Young people are attracted by extremists. I know that people from Europe and other parts of the world are getting more and more attracted by their publicity.

To counter these situations, young people must use social media for the purpose of creating a shared responsibility, a shared humanity, and shared value systems. These things are vital challenges. If we don۪t do it now, it will be very difficult.

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Kailash Satyarthi is a human rights activist who works to combat child exploitation and poverty and promote education.

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