FIRST POST: Kailash Satyarthi – We need a comprehensive, strong, stringent and specific law against the crime of child trafficking | Kailash Satyarthi US

By Debarati S. Sen.

Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi in an exclusive interview with First Post talks about the urgent need for mental health and legal support for child abuse victims, law against trafficking, need of a global fund for protection of kids and more…

He was 11 when he took the first step towards his life’s journey of single minded devotion to serve other children.

In a bid to help his classmates who’d dropped out of school due to monetary reasons he collected thousands of donated books in a thela and got the teachers and headmaster to distribute them to needy students. This extraordinary boy later completed a degree in electrical engineering, then gave up his career and his high-caste surname, Sharma, chose to call himself Satyarthi (seeker of truth), and grew up to be child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi.

In 1998, he led a global march against child labour that spurred the United Nations’ International Labour Organisation to adopt a convention protecting children against exploitation and hazardous work.

At 60, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “focusing attention on the grave exploitation of children for financial gain”. The Nobel laureate and his colleagues have since impacted over 90,000 children. Bachpan Bachao Andolan, Global March Against Child Labour, Global Campaign for Education, Bal Ashram – a model rehabilitation centre, Children’s Foundation, Save the Childhood Movement, are some of the social activist organisations that he founded over the years.

Excerpts from his exclusive interview with First Post…

Across the world, online sexual abuse has grown exponentially, because these days physical and geographical limitations do not exist any longer due to the easy access provided by the internet. There have been reports of online sexual abuse of internet profiles and avatars of youngsters. Your comments…

This is a serious problem. It was there already but as you mentioned, it has grown very fast recently. During the first lockdown, we did research, with the help of an assistant organisation and it was shocking to find that the demand for child sexual abuse material online what had doubled. People were sitting idle at home, looking for something for their sick minds and they started downloading this kind of material. Since the demand increased, the supply also increased. Our research found that the demand escalated to 97-98%.  This is a global issue and was there even before the pandemic but the pandemic actually exposed and exaggerated the problems that were already prevailing in the society. I met several presidents and prime ministers, kings, heads of the states, chancellors, and other top leaders with the idea that there should be an international convention to check data service providers. There is no international law to check data service providers and that is a serious problem. The consumption can be checked but since the data service providers are earning a huge amount of money out of this they create the demand too and are the vehicle for this. They are powerful people everywhere in the world and they have to be stopped, and held accountable for this.

About 160 million children were subjected to child labour at the beginning of 2020, according to a UNICEF and International Labour Organization report, with millions more at the risk of being pushed into labour in 2022 due to the pandemic…

Yes, this is shameful. We should take collective responsibility as an international community. For the first time in the last two decades the number of child labourers increased from 152 million to 160 million. And this was before the pandemic, just after the adoption of SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). People like me and many other organisations have said that the issue of eradication of child labour, child slavery and trafficking and all forms of child abuse must be incorporated in SDGs. So there is a goal 8.7 of SDG goals that child labour in all its forms must be eradicated by 2025, while all the rest of the goals have to be achieved by 2030. Between 2015 and 2020, the number increased and there is no excuse or justification for that.  We have simply ignored our most vulnerable children as a global community.  Now unfortunately research shows that towards the end of this year 40 to 45 million children would be added to the workforce. And this estimation is based on the problems generated due to the pandemic. But now another factor which is adding to this problem is the Russia-Ukraine war as that is pushing a large number of people into chronic problems of poverty, unemployment, the supply chain, the food crisis, the energy crisis and all these things are adding up to this situation and children are becoming the worst victims. So the global numbers would go up to around 200 million children. This is very serious.

You have been demanding a social protection fund across the globe? Could you throw some light on that…

So to address this issue of so many millions of kids being pushed into child labour, me and my colleagues – a number of noble laureates, world leaders, former presidents and prime ministers and some heads of the nations – we jointly launched a campaign for the formation of a Global Social Protection Fund. The fund may be difficult because the donor countries will take time and bureaucracy. It will be easier to create a mechanism or a flagship program where the donor countries as well as the private sectors can put some money in. Then it could be used for the most marginalised children. What is required is $53 billion – and this amount is less than 10 days of global military expenditure. This money is going to help every single child of all low-income countries, across the world, in education, health care and protection.  In addition to this it is going to solve the problem of malnutrition of pregnant mothers and the health care of pregnant mothers could also be addressed out of the same money. But unfortunately, the rich countries have not been so serious about the issue. And this 53 billion dollars is only 1.4% of what the rich European countries spend on their own social protection programs. If they can bring out just 1% then we can solve this problem. It is just a question of prioritising such issues and we have to create that honesty and political will for those children and marginalised communities who are voiceless, nameless, faceless.

The good news from all this discussion is that this idea of social protection for children where they can get swift and direct benefits is being received positively by some countries of the European Union and also we are getting some positive response from America. I had meetings with some of the top advisors to President Biden at the White House a few months ago.  If we fail to stop child slavery, child trafficking, child labour, we cannot accomplish any of the sustainable development goals because they are so interconnected with education, poverty, health and adult employment. We have to stop children working in full-time jobs. We have 200 million jobless adults globally, so every single child labourer is working at the cost of one adult’s job.

India does not have a specific law to tackle child trafficking – what do you have to say about this?

Child trafficking is a very sad thing. How can we make a new India and celebrate AmritMahotsav (I am also a member of the PM’s AmritMahotsav committee), if we still have child trafficking? I’ve been stressing this issue again and again, how can we have a sense of pride if we don’t have a comprehensive, strong, stringent and specific law against the crime of child trafficking? This has been put as two different crimes in our Constitution – one of human trafficking and the other of untouchability. Fathers of our constitution have already underlined that these two evils should be eradicated and has to be considered as a crime but human trafficking par aaj tak kanoon nahi bana. The newer draft has been pending in the parliament for almost six years and has not been tabled in the parliament yet. I’ve even personally told the Prime Minister as well as the opposition leaders, spoken to every single party, every single parliament member to please pass this law. If there is a law against child trafficking then at least people will have a weapon in their hands to stop this crime.

We will soon be celebrating the 75th year of independence… are we at a better place, especially when it comes to child trafficking, abuse, child labour?

We are definitely at a better place now. We have good laws, we have good schemes, we have much more sensitisation in the society.  Maybe just 20 or 30 years ago I can recall that people used to employ child domestic help with a sense of pride and as a social status. They used to take young children with them when they would go shopping or to a cinema. Young girls would carry the Memsaab ka saamaan. In kitty parties and women’s gatherings, women would brag about having young house helps. But now this is over and no one employs underage children anymore. This is a definite change in the mindset of people. It wasn’t a crime in those days and we had to fight in the courts and we had to fight with the government to amend the laws. But now, no one employs under-age kids openly, not even bigger companies and corporations because they know that it is a crime and they are sensitive towards it.

What is your plan for the near future? What are you looking forward to in 2022-2023?

Global social protection mechanism for children. There should be a specific provision for children across the world. Globally my focus for this year and next year would be on Africa. Because out of the 16o million child labourers around 92 million are from Africa alone and of this  82 million children labourers are in the sub-Saharan Africa region where there is intergenerational poverty, institutional discrimination, unemployment, lack of good governance and the combination of all these factors have led to children suffering. Africa has been facing geopolitical discrimination and economic injustices for decades despite the fact that the region is mineral-rich, forest-rich, water-rich, has gold mines and gemstones, it still has the maximum poverty. That will be my international work. Nationally, I am trying to do the ongoing campaign, the first phase of which is over. The second phase will be launched very soon and it is justice for every child. We wanted to ensure that children who are victims of sexual abuse and rape are given immediate mental health support as well as legal support so that justice is delivered safely. This is our priority this year. We are focusing on 100 districts in India now, and it may go up to 150 by next year. Children should get mental health and legal support.

Originally published at First Post, 4 August 2022, available here.