A few weeks ago, I walked outside during a break between sessions at the Social Good Summit in New York City, and instantly recognized a face in the crowd. It was 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi, who received the joint prize with girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai. (In fact, Yousafzai spoke at this summit two years ago.)
Satyarthi has fought tirelessly for children’s rights around the world these past 35 years, and was in town to speak at the United Nations, the Clinton Global Initiative, and here at the Social Good Summit, among other events.
I was fortunate to meet Satyarthi, and the next day, he made time in his busy schedule for an interview. He discussed how to free girls from the world’s worst, almost incomprehensible, evils: forced labor, slavery, trafficking, child marriage and abuse.
Just last week, the Harvard Foundation honored Satyarthi with the “Humanitarian of the Year” award.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Sonia Narang: What are the biggest challenges that young girls are facing today, including in your home country of India?
Kailash Satyarthi: Globally, we see that girls are the worst victims and sufferers. They are denied education — almost 60 percent of the illiterate children in the world are girls. Millions of girls are married at an early age. Girls are more vulnerable for sexual exploitation. Girls are trafficked into prostitution or for sexual abuse.
In India, the government is pushing for “Beti Bachao,” what they call “Save Daughters,” and hopefully it will help. But, that effort should also be substantiated with strong political will at all levels, so that girls are able to attend school.
Narang: What are the best solutions to rescue girls from the bonds of slavery, trafficking, or child marriage?
Satyarthi: Good quality, free education is key for gender equality. Of course it will take time, but we have to ensure that all children, and particularly all girls, are attending school. That should be the top priority. It is not only the responsibility of the government, but it should also be the responsibility of society and religious leaders.
In India, people worship three major goddesses. If our girls are denied dignity, freedom and respect, then why worship these goddesses? Faith leaders from all faiths should stand up and say, “We are on the girl’s side, we do not support the perpetrators.” They should take a stand against any perpetrator who does any crime against girls — whether it’s sexual abuse, verbal abuse, denial of education, denial of nutrition, or denial of health.
It’s the collective responsibility of the entire society — the government, NGOs, teachers, village leaders, so-called caste leaders or community leaders and religious leaders. If they cannot save the girls, they are not going to save the future.
Narang: What kind of work are you and your organization doing on the ground to change the lives of these girls?
Satyarthi: We are able to successfully convert villages into “child-friendly” villages. In these villages, most of the girls are doing household chores, working in fields, looking after animals, and doing domestic help. Many of the girls are married at a very early age.
We take them out of exploitative labor, child marriages, and abuse. We enroll all the children in schools, and help them form a children’s parliament, so they can elect young leaders.
I’ll tell you the story of one girl, Payal. When she was 10 or 11 years old, she was working as a child laborer. She and her elder sister were about to be married off by her family. But she was a part of this child-friendly village program, so we enrolled her in a school. She became empowered and opposed child marriage. She stood up to her family and said she would not get married.
That was a big thing in the village, and the whole family and relatives went against her. But, she was not threatened, and she stood by her conviction. She became an icon, and finally child marriage came to an end in her village.
Narang: Wow, that’s a great story. It’s about setting an example. How do you go into the village and enroll a girl like Payal into school if the family is resistant to that?
Satyarthi: We have to find some good allies, and the allies are usually educated or literate women. They are easily convinced why the girls should go to school and not work or get married. Sometimes, we work with lady teachers who can help us.
There are men also, sometimes boys, who agree to work for this cause. Sometimes, we also engage local religious leaders or local priests. It takes time, but if he is convinced, it becomes much easier because he can tell the village that all of this is against religious beliefs.
We also try to highlight successful women of that particular community. For example, we introduce a woman teacher, a policewoman or other women who are doing good work. They tell the village their own stories about how their parents didn’t allow them to go to school, but they got educated later and became successful women.
When they tell their stories, people think “Oh, that is a great idea,” and the mothers say, “Yes, we wanted to send our daughters to school.” And fathers also agree.
Narang: How does girls’ education bring about economic improvements for her and her family?
Satyarthi: When a girl enters school, millions of doors of opportunity open. That is the case with all children, but with girls, education gives a better future to the entire generation and generations to come. It has a ripple effect.
With girls, the economic return is much higher because they can acquire new skills they wouldn’t otherwise get. If girls are educated, then later on in life, they are able to manage money and become economically independent.
Women’s economic empowerment minimizes or completely abolishes evils such as domestic violence or sexual abuses. It helps create more harmony in the family because women have a bigger say. We create more sustainable families, sustainable society and eventually a sustainable world.