Nobel Laureate Raises Clarion Call for Childhood Freedom in DC
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, June 16, 2014 – It was a soul-stirring and unique sight: a Nobel prize winning child rights activist from India giving a clarion call for childhood freedom at a historic landmark of America.
On an afternoon that can best be described as an Indian summer, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Kailash Satyarthi made a passionate plea for children around the world – for freedom from slavery, labor, childhood hunger, trafficking, illiteracy, all forms of exploitation – on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital.
“Slavery and civilization must not co-exist”, he said, underscoring that “slavery is evil”, at the event appropriately titled a ‘Meet-up for Childhood Freedom’.
In front of the iconic Memorial, overlooking the National Mall, were placed gigantic letters which spelt ‘Freedom’.
Satyarthi declared, “Freedom is divine, thus non-negotiable. We cannot compromise on freedom. Freedom is the birthright of every human being”.
The event was hosted by the newly incorporated Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation of America and organized by DuFour & Company Productions. On hand, were: Connie Milstein, founding member and chairperson of the Foundation; MTV’s Gregg Sulkin who delivered opening remarks; 12-year-old Anisa who recited a heart-wrenching poem on child labor; Julie Langlie of Bullseye Communications who provided outreach support; Mr. Satish and Mrs. Promila Gupta, Indian-American community activists selflessly assisting in the efforts; representatives of child rights groups and organizations; concerned citizens from all walks of life; and curious tourists.
Satyarthi, who founded Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement) in 1980, has been visiting the US for some three decades now as part of his campaign. His current trip, from June 13 to 21, included the important event on Tuesday at which he joined hundreds of supporters in the clarion call for childhood freedom.
Earlier, at a press conference, he told us at INDIA THIS WEEK, “That is both symbolic and significant”, referring to the meet-up. “My colleagues, supporters, anti-child-labor and human rights activists are organizing this event and linking it with two major historic events there” — the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and the famous ‘I have a Dream’ speech by the 1960s civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
“They are connecting childhood freedom with the long American tradition of freedom”, he said. “This is also in commemoration of the 84,000 children which I and my organization have freed in the last 35 years”.
Addressing the gathering at the Lincoln Memorial, Satyarthi noted, “Today, is a monumental day. No other place can be more inspirational than here. Martin Luther King spoke against racism and we talk of child slavery. America supported him then, and I am sure America will support me today”.
Large placards strategically placed on the steps of the national monument read: 1.2 million children are trafficked each year; 5.5 million children live as slave laborers; 15 million girls are forced to marry each year.
Standing in the midst of these conspicuous signs, Satyarthi said, “Unfortunately, child slavery is the reality of today. Children are bought and sold like animals”. They are forced to work for meager means in hazardous conditions, their limbs are cut for profit, and girls are forced into prostitution, he told the gathering.
“It is a vicious circle”, he bemoaned. “Children are preferred for jobs because they are cheap labor, they can be exploited, they cannot form unions”.
Referring to his journey as a child rights activist which began over three decades ago, he admitted, “I was angry then, I am angry now”. Refusing to accept that children were working as child laborers in India, he left a promising career in engineering, channeling his anger into action. “There was one single purpose of my life – every child should be free to be a child”, he told the gathering in Washington, to much applause.
Satyarthi noted that when he began his campaign in 1981, the number of child laborers in the world was about 250 million. “In the late 1990s, it was alarming to know that 268 million children were working as child laborers. Today, the number is 168 million”, he said, adding “We all worked together” to reduce the figure. “I worked with civil society organizations, trade unions, teachers organizations, youth. Today, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, I feel much more morally responsible”.
But, he is troubled. “I feel pain”, he said. “We have not been able to pay tribute to Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., by putting an end to human slavery”.
How many more children will lose their childhood to violence, abuse and forced labor?, he asked. “The children have waited too long. Today, they cannot and will not wait. Their childhood must be restored”, he averred.
“You and I can wait”, Satyarthi told the gathering. “Politicians can wait… But, my children in the world are not going to wait. Their childhood has to be restored now. Their freedom has to be restored now. There is no compromise on childhood freedom”, he said, to sustained applause.
“Today, every child should be free to be a child”, he emphasized, pointing out the need of the hour is that all governments must prioritize education for all children in the world. “We can never make this world a better place, a just world, a dignified world, without education”, he made it abundantly clear. “Education is the cornerstone, the foundation for justice, development and economic growth. It is the fundamental right of every human being. There is no other powerful weapon that can break the shackles of slavery than education”.
Lamenting that only four percent of overseas development assistance is spent on education in developing countries, Satyarthi said, “I demand that all governments must prioritize education in their political agenda. All governments must prioritize education in their development agenda”.
Looking around at the attentive gathering, he said, “I am so excited, inspired and encouraged to see so many young faces here – so many children, so many youth, it is remarkable! The world is in very safe hands. We are going to make slavery a history! We are going to make childhood freedom a reality now”.
He underscored, “We have to make this world a better place for children. I call upon all of you to say we refuse to accept slavery. We denounce all forms of child slavery”, he said, to loud applause from the crowd.
“Let child labor become unacceptable. Let every child be in school. Let our world become child-friendly. The time is now. The place is this. Stand up and become a champion of childhood freedom”!