When I first met Kailash Satyarthi a quarter of a century ago, his direct actions to rescue child laborers were just starting to gain attention outside India. Over time, Kailash became a respected figure in human and child rights circles globally, and equally reviled by the bonded labor and child labor mafias, enduring not only attacks on his reputation, but physical attacks as recently as 2011.
Today, following the award of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for his life's work, Kailash and his colleagues are extending his reach--and marshalling some of the most important world leaders to rally to the cause of child rights. This week saw the first-ever "Laureates and Leaders for Children Summit" in New Delhi, and the host is none other than Pranab Mukherjee, the President of India.
Make no mistake: There has been progress in the fight against child labor over the past 20 years, and Kailash and his colleagues in the Global March Against Child Labor, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (the Save Childhood Movement) and Goodweave have been at the forefront of this struggle. The United Nations' recent adoption of a new set of standards to improve the human condition, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), give child rights advocates new tools and momentum to create a world where children are not put to work.
The SDGs are a new array of development benchmarks set by the UN that member states are obligated to fund and try to attain. What makes the SDGs different from previous efforts is the strong commitment not only to issues like health and environment, but rights-based goals that address root causes of human misery, like child labor, bonded labor and economic injustice.
"Hundreds of millions of our children suffer and are deprived of their fundamental human rights including their basic freedom and opportunity for an education," says Kailash. "However, the inclusion of several child-related issues in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have great potential to impact their lives.
Many Nobel Laureates and other world leaders hold the cause of children dear to their hearts and want to do more. Their desire inspired me to convene the first ever Laureates and Leaders for Children Summit--a purely humanitarian initiative joining leading voices which cannot be ignored."
The summit brought together approximately 30 leaders, including Nobel Laureates from various disciplines, heads of UN agencies, former presidents and prime ministers as well as 100 "thought leaders" and eminent persons from business, academia, the arts and sports. It's appropriate that the two-day summit was convened December 10 and 11, coinciding with International Human Rights Day.
Kailash was joined by the Dalai Lama, former Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard, Nobel Laureates José Ramos Horta and Leymah Roberta Gbowee, and members of the National Dialogue Quartet of Tunisia, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. Kerry Kennedy of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights foundation and economist Jeffrey Sachs were also featured speakers. Sachs highlighted the importance of using the SDGs as levers to address fundamental issues of rights and economic inequity. Kennedy talked about the importance of building power to accomplish change: "Power is never surrendered," she said, "it has to be demanded."
The second day saw the launch of the "100 million for 100 million" campaign, which aims to be the largest global mobilization of young people from schools, universities and the professions to become changemakers and champions for the 100 million of their sisters and brothers denied their basic rights of freedom, safety and an equal chance in life. Thousands of young people joined the conference participants on the steps of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Indian President's residence, as President Mukherjee inaugurated the launch of the campaign.
Over the past 20 years, awareness and activism around the issues of child labor, slavery and human trafficking have grown significantly, mirrored by both growing economic inequality and broad concerns about that inequity. Along with the child rights-based elements of the SDGs is a clear recognition that decent work for adults can create a more secure environment for children and their opportunities for education.
In the first article I wrote about Kailash for the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1993, he pointed out that the number of child laborers in India--in the millions--matched the number of unemployed adults. What was true then is true now: The lack of decent work for adults is robbing countries around the world of economic growth and prosperity and continuing to violate children's rights and condemn them to forego education and live a childhood in servitude.
The Sustainable Development Goals are a means to address this social and economic injustice. The Laureates and Leaders summit aims to jump-start this process.
Timothy Ryan is the Asia Director of the Solidarity Center, and a Board Member of The Global March Against Child Labor