THE DAILY STAR: Ensuring child rights – Social protection schemes are crucial | Kailash Satyarthi US

Interview by Nilima Jahan.

Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian social reformer who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Malala Yousafzai in 2014, talks to the Star about the global child rights situation during his visit to Bangladesh on January 14-18.

TDS: What is the global situation on child rights today? Has Covid-19 worsened the situation dramatically, especially in South Asia?

Kailash: Whenever there is any war, insurgency, mass violence, natural disaster, pandemic or any such crisis, the children have to pay the heaviest price. The Covid-19 pandemic was not only a health or economic crisis, but it has also proven to be a crisis of childhood and education.

For almost a year and half, 1.6 billion children were unable to attend school and nearly 40 percent of them had no access to online education due to the digital divide. Children in comparatively well-off conditions, living in cities and towns, suffered differently — with psychological trauma, depression, alienation and loneliness, being unable to socialise with their peers and teachers. But those who belong to the poor and marginalised families across the world suffered more. Especially in most developing countries, the pandemic exacerbated child slavery, trafficking, child marriage, and denials of education, along with other injustices and inequalities.

Although child labour decreased from 250 million in the year 2000 to 150 million in 2016, it unfortunately increased again by 10 million between 2016 and 2020, especially in a period when the world became $10 trillion richer. Africa faced the most serious consequences at that time, when tens of thousands of children had been pushed into child labour. After the pandemic, an estimated nine to 10 million children worldwide had already been added. Although there is no separate data on South Asian countries, the people there suffered the most and invested a big chunk of their resources in fighting the health and financial crisis, for which they cannot be blamed. Rather, it was the collective responsibility of the international community, particularly the rich countries, to support them.

The developing countries suffered not only because of the pandemic but also because of global apathy, and economic and geopolitical injustice. For example, in the middle of the pandemic, the international Group of Seven, popularly known as G7 countries, launched a new fund called the “Global Agenda of Action” for Covid-19. Though it was meant to support the marginalised people of developing countries, out of $12 trillion, only 0.13 percent had been disbursed to developing nations.

Additionally, the IMF approved the historic $650 billion for the global liquidity crisis, from which the developing countries should have gotten a fair share. However, from that money, a European child on average received $2,000, while an African child could benefit only with $60.

The world has never been as rich as it is today, but all these crises that the children have been facing are increasing. The Covid-19 pandemic has reversed a lot of progress the world had made on child rights.

TDS: Based on your experience, what are the major stumbling blocks to achieving universal rights for children?

Kailash: The first thing is the global political will, which needs to be substantiated with adequate policies and budgetary allocations. Secondly, there must be proper budgetary allocation by the respective countries and overseas development aid by the global financial institutions and the international community, especially the rich countries. Mindset is another major stumbling block which needs to be changed as part of building our social will. We have to respect our children and make them our friends, rather than only thinking of feeding them, helping them or showing them pity. And last but not least, the accountability mechanism — the responsibility of each government to ensure that the local authorities at each level are held accountable for the enforcement of laws related to the protection of children and the implementation of financial and development schemes with honesty.

TDS: What are your suggestions on the most effective ways to strengthen the child rights movement in South Asia?

Kailash: We the group of Laureates and Leaders for Children, (consisting of 90 Nobel Laureates, world leaders, such as some present and former prime ministers, presidents and their wives/first ladies, princes, kings and queens), through a joint letter, urged every single developing country to invest in social protection programmes and measures related to children, women and marginalised people, which have been successful.

Especially stipends, mid-day meals, conditional cash transfer programmes and food support (in Bangladesh, paddy was given to attain gender parity in primary education back in 1999 till 2002) were proven to be great social protection measures. They need to be replicated in a number of countries in the world, especially when higher education for girls is denied in some of them. The developing countries have to demonstrate adequate investment and budgetary allocation in education, in the protection and healthcare of children, and other issues related to them.

We strongly believe that the social protection measures and social security programmes have been very successful. Therefore, we are working on the creation of a global social protection mechanism for children, women, and all marginalised sections of society, in which interested rich countries can pool their money to generate funds for the needy countries.

We have seen that $53 billion can ensure all the rights of children and pregnant women in the world — less than 10 days of global military expenditure. And this amount is not a big deal because it is a little more than one percent of the social protection budget of European countries.

TDS: What drove you to work for the children? Please share some stories that helped you to carry on your struggle.

Kailash: It’s my life and my mission — it’s neither a choice nor a career. I can share two stories in this regard. The first one is of the very first day of my school, when I was five and half years old. I met a cobbler boy of my age, sitting outside the school gate. I was disturbed by the scene because I learned from my parents and relatives that every child is supposed to go to school. When I asked my teacher why the child was sitting outside the school gate and not with the rest of us in the classroom, he told me to calm down and said this is not uncommon for poor children to work for their families. I got similar answers from my parents and relatives, but I could not happy with those. One day, I even went to the boy and his father, who, with utter pain, misery and helplessness in his eyes, said, “Sir, you are born to go to school, but we are born to work”. I was so shocked and angry that I started crying. That was when I started looking at the world differently. I started questioning myself about whether whatever we learn from others is true or not. We have to fight and find our own answers. I looked at the empty eyes of the boy every day. I always carried it with me.

The second incident was after quitting my engineering career for my passion to work for children. In 1981, I started a magazine called “Sangharsh Jaari Rahega” (The Struggle Will Continue), and an elderly man named Wasal Khan came to me to save his 15-year-old daughter Sabo, who was about to be sold to a brothel from a brick kiln in Punjab, where the family used to work. After hearing the details, instead of writing about it, I decided to rescue her. I started preparing for that with my wife Sumedha, and some of my friends. But our rescue mission was unsuccessful and we were beaten up and thrown aside, while Wasal Khan was caught. But we did not give up hope. We were able to register a case at the High Court under the British provision called Habeas corpus, and within a few days, 36 women, girls and men were freed, including little Sabo. This was the first documented rescue of children through civilian effort in history. Thanks to my dear sister Sabo and Wasal Khan — the spark which was ignited in India because of them was spread across the globe.

TDS: How did you get engaged with the Bachpan Bachao Andolan?

Kailash: As I had to create an organisation to create a movement, my wife Sumedha, some of my friends, and I started Bachpan Bachao Andolan in India. In 1989, we created the first South Asian civil society platform called the South Asian Coalition Against Child Servitude. We saw children working on the streets of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, and thought of doing something for them and avoided the typical charity mindset.

Later, we realised we could not stay limited to South Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We launched the Global March Against Child Labour, and the Global Campaign for Education — the two largest civil society-initiated platforms and coalitions in the world, with the inclusion of hundreds of thousands of individuals and groups, not only from the NGOs, but also from businesses and corporations, religious institutions, and more.

TDS: With so many children dropping out of school and being forced into child marriage and hazardous labour in the fallout from the pandemic, what are your suggestions for the Bangladesh government to bring them back to school?

Kailash: In the past, Bangladesh has proven to solve child labour issues partly or largely. We have seen the drop in child labour and an increase in school enrollment and retention, especially of the girls. We have also seen progress in the social protection programmes and safety measures such as stipends, foods and more, which need to be enhanced. The parents, the community, teachers and everyone should encourage the children to go back to school. And for this, we have to create a more child-friendly environment in the communities and in society as a whole.

TDS: What do you do to keep your spirit alive?

Kailash: I believe everybody has to do their best in any manner. When I started working on it, it was a non-issue. Today, it has become a global issue. These days, I tell everyone that if you can make an unknown child smile through your writing, teaching, talking, money, business and politics, do it. Make at least one child happy — I will be the happiest person then.

Originally published by The Daily Star, 24 January 2023, available here. Image: copyright The Daily Star.