I had a conversation this morning with one of my PhD students, a young man from India who is nearing completion of his studies. During the course of our meeting we were reflecting on the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the India child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi, about whom I wrote on this blog yesterday, and why it was that neither of us, prior to this award had encountered this man and his work. Of the possible reasons we discussed, having read much about him over the past week, two seem to have some currency. Firstly, he appears to be a modest man who is immersed in his work and has not sought the publicity that might have followed his actions. Secondly, and much more disturbing, that the problems associated with child labour and trafficking are so great that his efforts to challenge these have been lost in the enormity of the task.
The humble nature of Kailash Satyarthi is apparent in the many recent interviews that have inevitably followed the Nobel prize announcement, but I would venture that the second factor that we considered, that of the extent of child labour is far more significant. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates, that all work done by children under the age of 15, and all hazardous work done by children under the age of 18 is illegal. Yet there are many reports of the abuse of this aspect of the Convention and these include estimates that there may be as many as 200 million children illegally employed around the world.
Since 1973, SOMO an independent, not-for-profit organisation working on social, ecological and economic issues has investigated multinational corporations and the consequences of their activities for people and the environment around the world. A recent report published by this organisation highlights the extent of the problem and provides case examples from several countries.
An example from India presented in the report describes how girls are deployed in the yarn and textile spinning mills in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. They are apparently contracted for periods of up to five years in a scheme known as ‘Sumangali’ which means ‘happily married bride’ in Tamil. The promise being that they will earn enough money after a period of time to provide a good dowry for their marriage. However, the SOMO report found that the girls, who live in appalling conditions, are forbidden phone calls home and are not allowed unaccompanied visitors to their hostels. They earn barely enough money to survive.
When reading details such as this from the SOMO report one realises the enormity of the challenge that Bachpan Bachao Andolan, the organisation founded by Kailash Satyarthi faces in making progress towards the eradication of this problem. It takes little imagination to understand that there are many with vested interests in maintaining the status quo who will do all that they can to oppose the implementation of the law and the upholding of children’s rights. The actions that unscrupulous employers and business men are prepared to take to uphold their illegal regimes are possibly another reason for Kailash Satyarthi to maintain a low profile. He has already survived a number of brutal attacks during his efforts to defend children and expose child labour. These included an assault on himself and his associates at a Delhi garment sweatshop in 2011 and several raids upon his offices by people intent on halting his activities.
So, returning to our previous ignorance of the activities of Kailash Satyarthi, I suspect that our theories related to his personal modesty and the overwhelming nature of the atrocities of child labour both have an element of truth. Sadly for many children the interventions of campaigners such as Kailash Satyarthi have had insufficient impact, but others have benefited from his determined interventions, and hopefully the publicity that his work is now receiving will make the life of ruthless employers and child traffickers that much more difficult in the future.