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India Nobel winner at forefront of child slavery fight

NEW DELHI: Kailash Satyarthi, named co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, has freed tens of thousands of Indian children forced into slavery by businessmen, land-owners and others.

Born on January 11, 1954, Satyarthi has been at the forefront of the drive against child labour in India where the practice is rife.

Satyarthi, who was trained as an electrical engineer, founded the Bachpan Bachao Andolan or Save the Childhood Movement in 1980.

He lives modestly and keeps a low profile except for his causes.

The activist, born in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, said he was “delighted” by the Nobel award, according to the Press Trust of India, and described it as “recognition” for the fight for child rights.

He began his work by staging raids on Indian manufacturing, rug-making and other plants where children and their parents often work as bonded labour.

Under bonded labour, families often borrow money and have to work till the funds can be repaid. But often the money is too much to be paid back from meagre earnings and people are sold and resold.

Building on his initial activism, Satyarthi organised the Global March Against Child Labor in the 1990s — dedicated to freeing the millions of children abused worldwide in a form of modern slavery.

He and co-winner Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan were honoured by the Norwegian Nobel Committee “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education”.

“To employ children is illegal and unethical,” Satyarthi said on the Global March Against Child Labour website.

“If not now, then when? If not you, then who? If we are able to answer these fundamental questions, then perhaps we can wipe away the blot of human slavery,” Satyarthi said, summing up his philosophy.

The activist is also founder of RugMark, a widely known international scheme that tags all carpets made in factories that are child-labour free.

He described the plight of children forced into the worst kinds of abusive work in a 2010 interview with the Robert F. Kennedy Centre for Justice and Human Rights.

“If they cry for their parents, they are beaten severely, sometimes hanged upside down from trees and even branded or burned with cigarettes,” he said.

He also spearheads the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude or SAACS, among other groups, and helps oversee a transition centre in Rajasthan where newly freed labourers learn fresh skills.

Satyarthi has said his social conscience was awoken when he was six and noticed a boy his age on the steps outside the school with his father, cleaning shoes.

Seeing many such children working instead of being educated, he felt an urge as he grew older to solve the problem — launching him on his career of activism.

“I think of it all as a test. This is a moral examination that one has to pass. … to stand up against such social evils,” he said in the Kennedy Centre interview.

Online Splash

The Twitter following of India’s Kailash Satyarthi began jumping exponentially and his website appeared to crash as he was catapulted into the global spotlight after winning the Nobel Peace Prize Friday.

Satyarthi, a low-profile child’s rights activist, was a social media minnow before winning the prestigious prize, with fewer than 200 followers on Twitter.

But within 90 minutes of the announcement, he had gained more than 4,500 followers — and the list was growing at blazing speed.

A Google search under his name prior to his Nobel victory yielded fewer than half a dozen pages of search results in English, indicating how little was known about the activist. But the pages were also multiplying exponentially after his win.

His personal website, www.kailashsatyarthi.net, which sports the blurb “Kailash Satyarthi… the seeker of truth”, was failing to open — apparently under the strain of heavy demand.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee recognised Satyarthi’s contribution in heading various forms of protests and demonstrations, all peaceful, focusing on the grave exploitation of children for financial gain.

“Children must go to school and not be financially exploited,” the committee said.

“In conflict-ridden areas in particular, the violation of children leads to the continuation of violence from generation to generation.” – AFP

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