| Penelope Macrae |
NEW DELHI (AFP) – For Indian campaigner Kailash Satyarthi, who Wednesday received his award as co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, giving poor children a better chance in life has been his “passion” since as a youngster he saw a boy cleaning shoes instead of going to school.
Satyarthi, a soft-spoken, trim 60-year-old, has for decades been at the forefront of the drive against child labour in India, home to the largest number of working children in the world, according to the charity ChildLine.
“This prize is important for the millions and millions who are denied a childhood,” Satyarthi said in Oslo on the eve of the prize-giving.
The award has sparked new awareness about child labour, he said, adding, “Consciousness is the beginning of change.”
“There are children who are sold and bought like animals,” said Satyarthi, an admirer of the pacifist teachings of Indian independence icon Mahatma Gandhi.
“There are children who are born and live in situations of conflict and terror.”
He paid effusive tribute to his peace prize co-winner Malala Yousafzai, praising her as “the bravest child we can think of”.
The married father of two, who lives modestly in New Delhi, told AFP in a recent interview he believes child labour will be wiped out in his lifetime.
But for that goal to be achieved, “You, me, everyone must take a stand,” he said. “That means saying ‘no’ to products made by children.”
Satyarthi, who freely concedes he’s an optimist, added while India has “hundreds of problems”, it also has “millions of solutions.”
The number of child workers worldwide has fallen by one-third since 2000, but still remains as high as 168 million children, according to the International Labour Organization.
The tally of child workers in India is a matter of debate, but UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, estimates around 28 million Indian children are employed.
The son of a police officer and born in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, Satyarthi said he was inspired to help when aged six he saw a boy his age, who could not go to school because his family was too poor, cleaning shoes.
He trained as an electrical engineer at the behest of his practically minded family but could not resist his true calling.
“I was not born to remain an engineer – the passion from my childhood was to work for children,” Satyarthi said.
In 1980 he founded the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or Save the Childhood Movement, which rescues children working in horrifying conditions.
He also started Rugmark, now called GoodWeave International, which tags carpets as child-labour free and heads the Global March Against Child Labour, which unites 2,000 social groups and unions in 140 nations.
He said the challenge ahead is starkly clear, “Every child in the world must be free to grow up in a peaceful, protected environment. We have to create such a world.”