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Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi Aims To Eliminate Child Labor

Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi has fought to end child labor in India, where 11 percent of the country's children work. In 2010, these children toiled at a construction site in New Delhi.
Daniel Berehulak
Getty Images
Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi has fought to end child labor in India, where 11 percent of the country's children work. In 2010, these children toiled at a construction site in New Delhi.

There are 165 million children toiling as child laborers around the globe, a number that Indian activist Kailash Satyarthi has dedicated his life to reducing. His organization, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or Save the Childhood, works to free children in India from forced servitude and enroll them in school. The 60-year-old father of two has spent decades campaigning to end child labor and human trafficking in India.

On Friday, his efforts were rewarded as he received the Nobel Peace Prize, along with 17-year-old Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai, who survived being shot in the head almost exactly two years ago.

Satyarthi and his group have worked to make India's rug industry child labor-free, and have liberated nearly 80,000 children since Bachpan Bachao Andolan was founded in 1980. "Won't rest until child labor is eliminated," he tweeted on Friday.

But despite his groundbreaking efforts, child labor continues to be a problem in India — and elsewhere around the world. More than 11 percent of children in India were involved in child labor in 2012, according to UNICEF, a particularly concerning number when you consider that India has more children than any country in the world.

We talked with Juliane Kippenberg, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in the children's rights division, about the continuing problem of child labor, and what Satyarthi's Nobel Peace Prize means for the issue.

With Kailash Satyarthi winning the Nobel Peace Prize, child labor is in the spotlight. What impact do you hope this will have on child labor issues?

It's really an important day for the global fight against child labor because the Nobel Prize shows that child labor is a huge issue affecting humanity, and it needs to be addressed. This will highlight the plight of the roughly 165 million child laborers out there, working in all sorts of industries and conditions and suffering terrible abuses. It will hopefully not only highlight the problem but really garner support and action to address a problem.

What does child labor mean in 2014? What are the common forms of exploitation?

The biggest sectors that employ children are agriculture and domestic labor. Most recently, we found in the United States, children are made to work in the tobacco fields, risking nicotine poisoning. They are illegal [immigrants] so there is no legal recourse for them. [Globally] we've also documented the exploitation of girls as domestic laborers, sometimes as young as five or six years old. These girls work up to 18 hours a day with a range of other abuses, like sexual violence and sexual harassment. And while there may be a promise in the beginning that the girl will get access to a better education or a better life by working for this family, very often these promises don't hold true. I once interviewed a 15-year-old girl in Guinea who had been repeatedly raped by the man of the house. She felt that she was not able to go back to her family, so she felt completely trapped in the situation.

How do these children end up in these situations?

One of the causes is low family income and poverty. We see children start working when there is a family crisis or armed conflict, those sorts of things. The child will either be sent to work or will decide on his or her own that this is the only option left.

It's usually the most vulnerable groups and the most disadvantaged groups that end up doing child labor. Globally, girls are the vast majority of children doing [domestic] work. Boys are sent to school, while girls are sent to work in a strange family.

What is the connection between education and child labor?

Many of the children who are working do not manage to go to school or they drop out. Their right to an education is being violated and this means these children will never be able to do professional jobs that need professional training. Education gives a whole set of life skills, related to health, rights and other issues, and that will not be available to those who are subjected to child labor and can't go to school. This is how child labor has been shown to perpetuate poverty.

We have interviewed children who are trying to combine school with child labor, and for most, this does not seem to work at all. Very often it puts a lot of strain on children who are doing incredibly hard work the entire time, and are very tired and inattentive at school. Their grades drop and they drop out of school.

How do these children escape this cycle?

The organization that Kailash Satyarthi leads does really impressive work with this sort of thing. They identify the children, and they're not always easy to find, and then they get them out of the situation, which is not an easy process. Or in Mali, a local NGO has managed to bring the community members together to agree that every child in the village is going to go to school and that no child in the village is going to be working. With support from community engagement and outside support to improve the school building, many more children were then attending school and not working in mining anymore.

What challenges do children face after they are free?

These children have usually suffered trauma, psychological or physical abuse and sexual abuse. Often they have done very dangerous work, with dangerous substances and chemicals, working in tobacco fields where children risk nicotine poisoning, working in small-scale gold mining and using toxic mercury to extract gold from the ore. We have also documented the use of child labor in tanneries, in leather-making in Bangladesh. Children are dealing with a whole cocktail of toxic chemicals that are cancer-inducing. With tools and machines, you see children having all kinds of accidents and you have immediate health effects and disabilities that arise from this.

The other issue that children face is access to an education. Schools are not always free of cost, schools may also be hard to reach, and as is the case with Malala [Yousafzai], there actually [can be] huge violence. There are a lot of obstacles that need to be overcome to ensure that education is affordable and accessible for these children.

Where does the power lie to change the fate of child laborers?

The main action is being done by non-governmental organizations like Kailash Satyarthi's. These are groups that are not only researching and highlighting the issue but actually identifying the children, finding them and assisting them on a case-by-case basis to get them out of these situations and get them an education. This is incredible work.

But there are about 165 million child laborers worldwide and NGOs by themselves cannot take on an issue like that. It's really the responsibility of governments to make sure their children are not exploited like that. Practically all countries around the world have child labor laws and yet in many countries these laws are not being implemented.

There is also a responsibility of companies that employ children. Child labor has been found in the leather industry, in gold mining, in the silk and textile and carpet industries. We need efforts by companies to ensure that they know under what conditions their product is being produced and then to ensure that there is no child labor anywhere in the supply chain.

You said you hope this prize will prompt action on the issue of child labor. What kind of action would you like to see?

We need to improve access to education globally, and that includes making education free of charge where possible. We need to ensure that child labor laws are being monitored and enforced. The poorest of the poor need support to send their children to school, like social protection programs and cash transfers. These programs pay families a small stipend, usually dependent on their children being enrolled in school. And U.N. agencies, governments from around the world and donor agencies need to all come together to really prioritize this issue. That, plus the efforts of the companies would really make a difference.

For people who are hearing about this issue, maybe for the first time, how can they get involved?

Right now in the U.S., there is the issue of child labor in tobacco farming, so if people in the U.S. hear about this, they should ask their own congressmen and senators what they are doing to ensure that no child works in tobacco farming in the U.S.

And you can ask when buying products where they are from and what has been the supply chain. If you go and buy some jewelry, you can ask the jeweler, "Can you assure me that this gold has not been mined by children?" They might not be able to assure you right away, but it will raise the right questions. And that can enact change.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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