One person can make a difference—in any culture, at any time. More than twenty years ago a young engineer gave up a lucrative career and dedicated himself to reclaiming the lives of South Asia’s most vulnerable population: the millions of children who are exploited and abused in a form of modern-day slavery.
Kailash Satyarthi was challenged at an early age by the world’s economic inequities, and the grotesque wrongs they engender. On his first day of school when he was barely 6 years old, Satyarthi noticed a boy about his age on the steps outside the school with his father, cleaning and repairing shoes, and not entering the classroom like everyone else. He saw this every morning. It was a common sight in the central Indian town of Vidisha, but facing it daily left Satyarthi feeling humiliated, he said. One day Satyarthi gathered up the courage to ask the cobbler why it was so. The cobbler replied: “My father was a cobbler and my grandfather before him. We were born to work, and so was my son.”
Satyarthi was left unsatisfied by that explanation, and by others offered by his parents, teacher and headmaster. “It was very difficult for me to understand,” he said. “I used to see that kid every day, and I was unable to solve the problem.” By the time he was 11, Satyarthi had begun urging other boys and girls to collect used textbooks and money to give to families who could not afford tuition for their children. It was the beginning of a life of activism.
Satyarthi went on to study engineering, but did not last more than a year in that vocation after he graduated from college in Bhopal. It was 1980 and he had started a journal called The Struggle Shall Continue, when one day an old man staggered into the journal’s office with a horrifying story of children working in a brick factory, never seeing the light of day. “I decided right then to stop talking about the problem and go to the victims, and get them out of there,” he said. In the effort to save the children that day, Satyarthi and those with him were beaten by police, but the children eventually were released with the help of the courts. His original idea was daring and dangerous. He decided to mount raids on factories — factories frequently manned by armed guards — where children and often entire families were held captive as bonded workers.
Typically bonding occurs when a desperate family borrows needed funds, often as little as thirty-five dollars, and is forced to hand over a child as surety until the funds can be repaid. Frequently the money can never be repaid and the child is sold and resold to different masters. Bonded laborers work in the diamond, stone-cutting and manufacturing industries and especially in carpet making where the children hand knit rugs that are sold in markets around the world, including the United States.
Satyarthi has worked relentlessly to free bonded children, to rehabilitate them with vocational training and education and marshal the force of public opinion against child labor. His efforts have taken many different forms, some of them on an international scale. For example, in 1998 he organized the Global March Against Child Labor, bringing representatives from more than ten thousand non-governmental organizations together to pressure governments, manufacturers, and importers to stop illegal and unethical labor practices.
Satyarthi’s courage and persistence have resulted in the liberation of more than 60,000 children in South Asia and beyond. From the journal office in Delhi, to founding the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, to leading the Global March Against Child Labor, Satyarthi said he has dedicated himself to reclaiming the lives of the world’s most vulnerable population: the millions of children who are exploited and abused in a form of modern-day slavery. “Children are sold by destitute parents into bonded labor,” Satyarthi said. “The children are then often re-sold into prostitution or, more recently, as forced organ donors.” He said he wants to give them a childhood, and to give them the tools they need to overcome poverty and abuse through education and validation as human beings.
Satyarthi continues to risk his life every day, and has received constant death threats from those opposed to his work. The threats are dire, for two of Satyarthi’s colleagues have been murdered and in 2004 Satyarthi was violently assaulted during his group’s effort to free Nepalese girls from forced labor as circus workers. Satyarthi wrote to supporters afterward, “I have always taken such incidents as a big challenge. The fight against human slavery and trafficking is no mere charity. It is a tireless struggle….They can kill our body, but we will emerge again like the phoenix.”