In rescuing an estimated 85,000 victims of trafficking, slavery and child labor, Indian children’s rights activist Kailash Satyarthi has risked his life and been severely beaten.
Satyarthi, who was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 with Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan for their fight against the exploitation of children, isn’t afraid to put his life on the line.
“I prefer to die lying on the ground for a worthy cause instead of dying in bed,” said Satyarthi, 62. “We all die sooner or later. The greater the peril, the greater the gain.”
Traveling throughout the world for about two-thirds of the year, Satyarthi came to Japan in May at the invitation of the nongovernmental organization Action against Child Exploitation (ACE), which seeks the abolition and prevention of child labor.
Countless desperate parents have sought the help of Satyarthi, who has helped transform the problem of child labor into a human rights issue.
About 170 million children around the globe are working in cotton fields, cocoa groves, mineral dig sites, carpet factories and sweatshops instead of going to school.
Based in India, Satyarthi seeks to save oppressed children and help them return to society.
In 1998, he called for a civil society campaign in the form of the “Global march against child labor,” which touched every corner of the globe, and generated unprecedented mass awareness marches with about 7.2 million participants.
The following year, the International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted the convention against the worst forms of child labor.
In being jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Satyarthi and Yousafzai were praised “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the rights of all children to an education.”
Satyarthi became aware of child labor when he was just starting elementary school.
He saw a young boy who repaired and shined shoes with his father near Satyarthi’s school. He courageously asked the boy’s father, “Don’t you let him go to school?”
The surprised father replied, “My father, my grandfather and I have been working since we were children. So he just does the same as we have done.”
Satyarthi was shocked by his words and couldn’t forget the jarring fact even after becoming an electrical engineer upon graduating from university.
Satyarthi decided to start campaigning against child labor, although he was lecturing at a university at that time. First, he started publishing a magazine to spread the issue to the world.
Then, two months later, a man fled from a brick factory to speak with him. The man said he was tricked into working under duress in servitude without pay, and he was being held in captivity.
The man, who risked his life to escape from the factory, pleaded for help, saying, “My boss is about to sell my 15-year-old daughter into a brothel. She was born and raised in the factory.”
Satyarthi, who initiated the crusade against child servitude, couldn’t contain himself in hearing the pleas of the father.
“If the girl were my daughter, I would take action right now,” he thought. Satyarthi headed to the factory with his friends to rescue the girl. However, they were unsuccessful, and the girl’s father was recaptured.
Nevertheless, Satyarthi was able to eventually free 36 people, including the worker’s daughter, from the factory in cooperation with lawyers. The enslaved father was also rescued.
Since then, Satyarthi embarked on full-fledged rescue operations for children from forced employment.
In 1980, he established nongovernmental organization Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), India’s largest grass-roots movement for the protection of children, at the age of 26.
Even after the law to prohibit unfair labor was enacted in 1986, he persistently called for the improvement of anti-child labor laws and many crooked traders were arrested.
NEVER FLINCH FROM VIOLENCE
However, coming to the rescue of those in need is fraught with peril. Two of his friends were beaten to death while attempting to rescue children. Satyarthi also has put his life in danger several times.
About 10 years ago, Nepalese parents came to Satyarthi to ask for help, saying, “Our daughter is being forced to work at a circus in India.”
He finally found out her location and rode to the site with his son, who is a lawyer, and his colleagues. At the scene, he had a gun pointed at his head.
Although he narrowly escaped being killed, chaos prevailed after both friends and foes arrived at the site.
Satyarthi was severely beaten, and he was taken to the hospital by a passer-by when he collapsed to the floor.
After he recovered from the beating, the members of the circus ring had fled. Local police he contacted were utterly unhelpful.
Therefore, Satyarthi decided to go on a hunger strike. The incident and the events that followed were aired daily on TV, which eventually mobilized efforts to protect and promote the rights of children and stirred demonstrations in Nepal, with protesters surging around the Indian Embassy in Nepal.
Finally, the judicial authorities started taking action to help the victims.
As a result, 24 girls, including the daughter of the desperate parents, were released. Satyarthi is still unable to fully raise his left arm because of the injuries he suffered at that time.
Still, the soft-spoken activist is filled with a strength that never flinches from obstacles in his path and violence.
URGES TO DREAM AND TAKE ACTION
It takes time for children living in terror and fear, who were saved from appalling circumstances, to come out of their shell.
Some children were even frightened of sitting in a chair because they only had the experience of sitting on the ground.
Workers at a shelter spend time talking to them, eating together, humming and singing their hometown songs.
Children who have started new lives at the shelter remain beside the newcomers, who are still filled with fears and concerns.
“It doesn’t take time for children to understand each other as they share similar experiences,” said Satyarthi.
When children understand that they have come to a safe haven, they begin to feel at ease and open their hearts.
“The moment when smiles of freedom spread across children’s faces liberates me from my own self-interests and pain,” he said.
Children always gather around Satyarthi, when he’s in Africa and South America, and he quickly makes friends with them.
During his visit to Japan, he also opened up to disaster-stricken children in an instant, although he doesn’t speak Japanese, in Yamamoto, Miyagi Prefecture, which was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
“I speak the language of compassion and love,” said Satyarthi.
“It’s several hundred times more powerful than the language you vocalize,” he smiled.
At his lecture, he enhances the mood by talking directly to the audience and urging them to respond to his calls.
He also turned his back on the big stage to take a selfie with the audience, holding up a tablet.
“I always want to feel a sense of unity and want to walk together with everyone,” he said.
Satyarthi wants to convey to Japanese that child labor is not only an issue in impoverished areas far from Japan but an issue that touches their daily lives.
“Your soccer ball, toy, shoes and chocolate—all these items that you use in your daily life may be produced through child labor,” he said. “We are all responsible for child labor because we live in the same period as those children.”
However, he said, we can start making a difference in our daily lives by eating chocolate and buying soccer balls that are not made with child labor.
The carpet manufacturing industry also exploits enormous numbers of child laborers.
In 1994, Satyarthi launched a system to certify child labor-free rugs by the GoodWeave Label to assure that no child laborer was involved in their making.
This move changed the attitudes of consumers in both Asia and the West.
“How could you cultivate such strong determination?” one of the audience members asked him at his lecture during his visit to Japan.
He replied, “You are already strong enough. The only difference between you and me is whether you use your strength just for yourself or not. If you do, the world will never be saved.”
During his lectures, Satyarthi always urges people to do the 3Ds of “Dream, Discover and Do.”
“Dream big. Discover your full potential and opportunities that surround you. And act on your dreams and make the best use of the opportunities you have discovered,” Satyarthi said.