Person of the Week: Kailash Satyarthi

ByPeter Jennings

May 14, 2004 -- Kailash Satyarthi's work is rescuing children. Throughout India, Satyarthi's mission in life is to change a system in which some children go to work before they are 14.

"If I was not fighting against child labor, I don't know what else I could do. It was always in my heart, I could not live without that."

He raids factories, but sometimes factory owners flee before he arrives. Sometimes he arrives to find children locked in dark rooms. Sometimes children are hiding in fear. In one case, a factory owner had told child laborers the police were coming to kill them. Some of the kids hid in trees. A field nearby revealed one terrified child after another.

"It's really a kind of spiritual feeling which is difficult to explain," Satyarthi said. "And the smiles come on the face of the children when they realize that they are free."

This week we found Satyarthi at a conference in Italy working hard in the way he knows best — organizing others in a global march against child labor.

"When you are living in a globalized economy and a globalized world, you cannot live in isolation, all the problems and solutions are interconnected, and so the problem of child labor in any part of the world is your problem," he said

The rate of children working in India is higher than anywhere else in the world, even though it is illegal for children under 14 to work. A poor family may have only a dollar a day to live on, so they have to put their children to work. Working children are the children of parents who were once working children.

"Many children are born in slavery they have never seen the outside world," Satyarthi said.

The children labor in any number of ways — they make rugs, they work in stone quarries, they pick rags in the streets. Some of them are in bondage to pay off a family debt.

Satyarthi recalls one boy's story. "One day when he was crying for his mother, the master had beaten him up and then struck his head with an iron rod."

Satyarthi has been fighting child labor for 25 years. He has rescued thousands of children. And some of them he's kept free. And put them in schools, trying to break the cycle. It's a dangerous job. He's bad for business.

"My house has been attacked, I was attacked, my office has been attacked. That was very normal in my life for years and years," he said.

Satyarthi was born to a middle-class family. He says he realized the difference between himself and other children on his first day at school.

"Why are some children born to work? And why [are] the children like me are in school? If they are born in poor countries, if they are born in poor families, it is not their sin."

The Indian government knows it's a problem and has many child protection laws. But real change requires political will.

So Satyarthi and others must go on rescuing children.

He hopes others realize the importance of his campaign, not simply for the children, but for everyone.

"The world should have one thing in mind — if the children are exploited in any part of the world, if the children are deprived of their childhood in any part of the world, the world cannot live in peace," he said. "The world cannot be human."

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