Speaking to some 350 journalists and media professionals from more than 40 countries gathered this week at the 2016 East-West Center International Media Conference in New Delhi, Nobel Peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi delivered a call to action on child slavery and trafficking, saying, “The main thing is, do something.”
“There’s no greater violence than to deny the dreams of our children,” said Satyarthi, who is credited with rescuing more than 80,000 children in 144 countries from forced labor and human trafficking through his Children’s Foundation. “I refuse to accept that the laws and constitutions are unable to protect our children. Today is a time for every child to have a right to life. I refuse to accept that the shackles of slavery can be stronger than the quest for freedom.” (Watch video of his address.)
There are more than 160 million child laborers across the globe, Satyarthi said, and he has dedicated his life to restoring the childhood that was stolen from them. “I have looked into their frightened and exhausted eyes,” Satyarthi said. “I’ve held their injured bodies and felt their broken spirits. If children in any part of the world are deprived of their childhood, the world cannot be at peace.”
As a young man, Satyarthi gave up a career in electrical engineering to start his own magazine devoted to educating the public about child slavery. That led a desperate father to come to him asking for help rescuing his daughter from being sold to a brothel. It turned out that the man and his wife themselves had been trafficked years before from their native community and forced to work in a brick factory in Punjab, where their children were born into slavery.
While writing the man’s story for his magazine, Satyarthi said he realized that his pencil and paper were not enough. “If I were a father, what would I do? If I were a brother, what would I do?” he asked himself. “’Am I going to write and wait?’ So I told the man that I will not write anymore. Instead, I will go with you to rescue your daughter.”
The two men traveled across India with a photographer to document their effort. Sadly, they came back empty handed. Unsure of how to proceed from there, Satyarthi said he contacted lawyer friends who advised him to use the court system. The legal doctrine of habeas corpus, whereby a person can claim unlawful detention or imprisonment before a court, then cleared the way for Satyarthi to rescue children and women who had been condemned to forced labor. In the end, Satyarthi was able to rescue the Punjab girl who had been sold to the brothel, along with 36 other children in forced labor.
He said that was the first time he truly experienced freedom: “That was the moment a journalist turned into an activist.”
Satyarthi described globalization as an emerging tool in the fight against child slavery and human trafficking. He said the world now sees images of children being blown to bits as suicide bombers, or girls who are buried alive after being sold to a brothel for less than the cost of a pack of cigarettes. “Whose daughters or sons are these?” he asked.
Satyarthi’s rescue and policy development work have taken him across the globe. His big question for the world is: “If we are not able to protect our children, how can we protect our future? If we are not going to act now as politicians, business people, social workers, teachers and media persons, then we are allowing the creation of a much more dangerous world for generations to come.”
Despite this dire scenario, Satyarthi said humanity has made remarkable progress. Fifteen years ago, there were 260 million child laborers around the world, he said; today, that number is down to 168 million, and there’s been progress in educating the world about child labor.
Thanks to media coverage of child trafficking issues, political will has increased, along with business sector cooperation, the Nobel laureate said. Corporations now understand they need a more educated workforce, which means more investment in education, instead of using the children in slavery. Additionally, media must be credited for generating consumer sensitivity. Informed shoppers can now question the big brands and supply chains about their role in forced labor.
But despite such advances, he said, human trafficking remains increasingly profitable, generating as much as $150 billion a year worldwide – profits that “could not be earned without the connivance of local authorities and money launderers.”
Asia is the biggest hub for internal and cross-border child trafficking, Satyarthi said, accounting for about half of all cases: “We are transit corridors and we are the destinations.” And as long as there are such huge sums to be made, “we cannot build a safer and more peaceful Asia.”
The good news, said Satyarthi, is that for the first time in the global development narrative, the UN has incorporated all major child-related issues into its new Sustainable Development Goals. The goals focus on inclusive and equitable education for all children and total eradication of child labor by 2030, along with eradication of trafficking and protection against violence. However, he said, those goals must be translated into action: “The child-related goals should be prioritized, and there is a need for a coordinated approach. We cannot solve these problems in isolation.”
For decades, Satyarthi has been pointing to a correlation between child labor, illiteracy and poverty. If you allow one of them to continue, he said, the others will follow. “It’s a vicious circle.”
It would take only about $39 billion to ensure primary and secondary education for children across Asia, Satyarthi said. “That’s not a lot of money when you consider that the global military expenditure over a four-and-a-half-day period is 22 billion dollars. It’s a question of priority and responsibility toward each other. We can do it.”
Speaking directly to the media conference participants, Satyarthi said those who have the power of knowledge and information are like fire, and that fire must be used to educate the public: “Every journalist at this conference is a source of fire and has a moral responsibility to humanity to enlighten the world.”