One night this summer in Dubai, Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi was riding in a car pulling out from a screening of “The Price of Free,” a documentary about his life, as a boy ran out in front of the line of cars, shouting his name. The 65-year-old Indian anti-child labor activist got out of his car, thinking something was wrong.
The boy, about 14 or 15, wanted to shake Satyarthi’s hand and told him, “I have to be Kailash Satyarthi. I have no other choice in my life.”
Satyarthi has been fighting against child labor most of his life. His passion isn’t simply for children, it’s about their dreams. If childhood itself is seen as a sacred time, he believes, then children are less likely to be exploited for labor.
“I only have one goal in life,” Satyarthi told CNN at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Though there’s still a long way to go, he’s pleased at how much progress the world has made.
Four decades of campaigning
Since 1980, the former engineer has spent his life campaigning against child labor, ultimately winning the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai in 2014.
Satyarthi launched the 100 Million campaign in late 2016. The initiative, run in partnership with his Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, seeks to engage 100 million young people around the world to speak out for the world’s more than 100 million child workers.
The International Labor Organization charts the total of child laborers globally at 152 million, with 73 million of those in hazardous labor conditions. The ILO says 10 million children are victims of abject slavery.
The number of children working has fallen sharply in the last two decades, from as many as 246 million in the year 2000. With more global awareness and effort, it could fall further.
Satyarthi’s organization and Participant Media collaborated on a letter-writing campaign, in which more than 15,000 people wrote letters to the top 100 US retailers asking them to take steps to ensure the products they sell are not connected with child labor. So far more than a million letters have been sent, the foundation says.
The constant pressure retailers face to lower prices can create an incentive to cut corners, and not keep an eye on factory conditions at various points in a supply chain as a product goes from a raw material to an eventual product on store shelves thousands of miles away.
Compassion and anger
Why build a campaign around young people? Answering that question becomes a key insight into Satyarthi’s worldview.
When Satyarthi was five years old he saw a “cobbler boy outside my school gate.” The boy was the same age as Satyarthi. “I couldn’t understand why he’s sitting outside and just not with his stuff in the classroom. That made me not only disappointed and painful but also angry. That was the beginning.”
The young Satyarthi confronted the boy’s father, who told him that he and his son were “born to work.”
In that moment Satyarthi felt two simple emotions, he says, “compassion and anger.” These twin emotions would come to animate his life.
“Childhood is not an age. It’s a virtue. It’s a value,” Satyarthi says. “That means simplicity. That means purity. That means transparency.”
“The world is capable to end child labor,” Satyarthi said. “We have the technology. We have the resources. We have laws and international treaties. We have everything. The only thing is that we have to feel compassion for others.
“My struggle is for the globalization of compassion.”
Satyarthi says prior to receiving the Nobel Prize, he’d been pushing to get child-related issues mentioned in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. “That was the future of the global development agenda,” he said. “And there was no mention of child labor or forced labor or slavery or violence against children.”
But after the prize was announced he seized on the chance to speak with world leaders like US President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande, who agreed to lend their voices.
And the prize gave him the platform to engage with all of the UN agencies. Those efforts bore fruit. The UN Sustainable Development Goals now contain language directing efforts to “end child labor in all its forms” by 2025.
“It was a major policy victory,” he said. “These things are now at the front of the global development agenda. They cannot be ignored.”
A youth crusade
Throughout his decades of campaigning, Satyarthi saw the value of getting children to speak on behalf of other children.
Young people were a major component of the seven million who took part in the Global March Against Child Labor that Satyarthi spearheaded in 1998, and which helped lead to the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor passed the following year. “They show strong, pure moral leadership because their voices can’t be neglected,” Satyarthi said.
And later through the Global Campaign for Education, which he co-founded, “We were able to mobilize dozens of millions of people. And most of them were young people, students,” he said. “That has broadened the global education agenda.”
The 100 Million campaign seeks to build on those campaigns, and through it, young people have helped notch more policy changes. For example, in Germany, campaign participants helped compel new actions in the Bundestag and the Minister of Development to launch a campaign against child labor.
In India, the 100 Million campaign launched a caravan traveling through 5,000 villages across the country campaigning against child trafficking.
Satyarthi said he couldn’t necessarily put a timeline on how to keep curbing child labor down to zero, but said he rarely feels discouraged. Seeing the smiles and upbeat spirit of children keeps him buoyed.
Grace Rubin, a junior at Carleton College in Minnesota, is one of the young people who’s been inspired by the 100 Million campaign.
She said she was studying international affairs, taking a course on the global supply chain and fast fashion. She knew she wanted to do human rights-related work and connected with the US branch of the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation.
One major realization she says she had was that “in the US people don’t realize that children’s rights aren’t guaranteed everywhere.”
She spent the summer organizing events for the foundation, often centered around educating policymakers and politicians.
Rubin felt getting young people and policy makers to meet could cause breakthroughs for both groups: leaders were inspired to create change, and young people understood their voices can matter.
“It shows children from a young age that politicians aren’t untouchable,” Rubin said.
Inspiring the next generation
Satyarthi’s ambitions have long been focused on global policy, but the root of it all still remains back home in India. The original organization he founded, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (or the Save Childhood Movement) says it’s directly rescued more than 88,000 children.
One of those children was Amar Lal, who was working digging telephone lines in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan with his family in 2001. “I am one of the lucky, charmed boys,” he told CNN. “I was five or six when Kailash rescued me.”
Lal, now 22, hails from the Banjara, an ethnic group with nomadic roots. He had never been to school.
“I came from a situation where I couldn’t have imagined where I am now,” Lal said.
Lal finished his studies and became a lawyer. He will focus his life on helping save children from circumstances not unlike those he experienced.
Six months ago Lal landed a job with the BBA litigating cases related to child labor. “This is my duty to do that. We need justice for the children,” he said. “Kailash has done something for us. We need to send his message to the world.”