Kailash Satyarthi, 60, who shared the prize with Malala Yousafzai, has campaigned all his life for children
Kailash Satyarthi was five when he first became aware that some children in India did not go to school the way he did, but worked for a living.
He had spotted a boy of his own age sitting on a doorstep polishing shoes. “Forget it,” his relatives said: the child was poor, it happened. Still, he plucked up the courage to ask the boy’s father why the child was working. “Sir, we are born to work,” the man told him.
Even at that young age, Satyarthi felt that this was not the way the world should be. And when he finished his own education he turned his back on his intended engineering career and set out to put right the wrong he had perceived.
On Friday his efforts were rewarded with the Nobel peace prize. But the announcement left many, even in his own country, wondering how it was that they knew more about Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai – with whom he shared the prize – than they did about the 60-year-old from Delhi. That, Satyarthi would argue, speaks volumes about the work still to be done to change the way many in India think about the rights of children. Two years ago an investigation into the trafficking of boys from the state of Bihar resulted in the rescue of dozens of children. A year later Bachpan Bachao Andolan, translated as Save the Childhood Movement, which he founded in 1980, helped the Observer to expose the trade in girls from the tea estates of Assam , where poverty wages fuel a thriving modern slave trade.
And in March Satyarthi himself featured in the story of the rescue of some of those trafficked girls . In the accompanying documentary, he was seen leading an ambitious operation which resulted in the freeing of more than 20 children .
Afterwards Satyarthi explained what had driven him to rescue tens of thousands of children from slavery and to campaign for the millions – five million, according to Indian government figures – of children who still work in India
“I am not the most peaceful person and I am angry because of how people can treat children like that. How they can rob the freedom of human beings and particularly of children,” he said.
“They are criminals, but I am not revengeful. I think there is something wrong in society as a whole, there is something wrong in the mindset of people, and we have to change it, sometimes through legal course of action but sometimes through consciousness-raising.
“There are many occasions where we come across corruption and bribery where the police have been bribed and when we arrive to rescue the children suddenly they have disappeared. The word has already been passed to the trafficker and the trafficker prepares himself with firearms and we are attacked, so these things make me angry, but my anger is a positive anger, it is not to harm anyone but to bring freedom.”
There are plenty who would harm him and his fellow campaigners though. “It is very, very dangerous and risky,” he said. “I have my broken leg and my broken head and my broken back and my broken shoulder, so different parts of my body have been broken while I was trying to rescue children.
“I lost two of my colleagues, one was shot dead and one was beaten to death. Most of my junior colleagues have been beaten up many, many times. So it is not an easy game. These people [the traffickers and employers] are like mafia, they are very, very powerful. It is a challenge, definitely, and I know that it is a long battle to fight, but slavery is unacceptable, it is a crime against humanity. I’m not talking in legal terms: morally, I feel I cannot tolerate the loss of freedom of any single child in my own country, so I am a kind of restless person in that sense. We cannot accept this.”
Slavery in India persisted because it remained profitable, he said, and because the ordinary people who employed children as servants in their homes – as many as 100,000 in Delhi alone – simply did not think they were doing anything wrong.
“I don’t think these people who engage them as domestic slaves ever think of it, they have a different mindset, they think they were born to take work from poor people, sometimes poor people think they were born to work for them. They don’t want to know that it is illegal, it is immoral and it is a crime.”
Satyarthi’s years of campaigning have left India with strong laws against trafficking, child labour and bonded labour. But where it still struggled was in implementing those laws, he said.
Simply rescuing children was not enough, he said. “We are lucky that in many cases these girls and boys still carry their dreams. And our challenge is to make their dream come true. So a lot of work has to be done for their economic and social rehabilitation, educational rehabilitation.”
The work brings its own rewards, he said: the look on the face of a freed child is everything. “I strongly believe that every human being, even the animals and plants, are born free. God has made us free, but other human beings or the system made them slaves, so when we free even one child … we are nearer God. I see that once these very pure, very sacred smiles come to the faces of these children, this is the smile of God.”
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