Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi: an engineer of freedom

Kailash Satyarthi has taken effective steps toward ending the worldwide exploitation of children, says the head of one of his efforts, Goodweave International.

Adnan Abidi/Reuters
Indian children's rights activist Kailash Satyarthi laughs at his office in New Delhi earlier this month. Mr. Satyarthi shared the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize with Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai. Both have struggled against the oppression of children and young people, and for the right of all children to education, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said.

My long-time friend, colleague, and mentor has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Kailash Satyarthi is a hero to many people, all of them certainly glad that this kind, original, and tenacious man has at last received such recognition. As my career has been devoted to advancing and realizing his ideas, I want to offer some insight into the individual who has driven the global movement to end child labor.

Because of his work, we now know there are 168 million child laborers worldwide. They used to be invisible.

Kailash started risking his life for these children more than 30 years ago, when he broke into Indian factories to emancipate them. Early footage of him doing this “raid and rescue” work showed the world that child slavery exists.

Along with his wife, Sumedha, he helped those he rescued to recover and find their place in the world, and he put their stories on the global stage, shaming lawmakers and companies into acknowledging the systemic exploitation of children for economic gain.

Kailash’s problem-solving approach sets him apart. He worked as an electrical engineer before he became a freedom fighter, and he draws on the critical, analytical thinking of his trade to advocate for the world’s forgotten children.

Kailash is a true social entrepreneur who created numerous programs and organizations that together form a robust movement that targets the root causes of child labor. He would interject here to emphasize that this has been, by necessity, a collective effort. But he has been a leader at almost every stage of the journey to reform the systems that enable child labor.

My connection to Kailash is through GoodWeave, an organization that he created in 1994. At that time there were over 1 million children weaving carpets in South Asia alone.

Hidden behind the closed doors of factories and loom sheds, it would have taken an army to find them. Even if there were troops to round up all these victims, they would only be replaced by more children.

But Kailash realized that he could make a map that would lead him to all these young victims, a map drawn from the supply chains of every company that imports rugs and other handmade goods from South Asia. With growing demand from consumers for ethical products and the cooperation of the importers, he gained influence over their suppliers, persuading them to open their doors to GoodWeave’s inspectors.

In exchange for proving that there were no children in their supply chains, carpet sellers could put the GoodWeave label on their products.

This is the genius of Kailash. Product labels had never before communicated who made the product and under what conditions. Fostering social change through the marketplace was a new idea.

It still is, but GoodWeave has now proven that it can be effective. Since 1995, more than 11 million carpets bearing the GoodWeave label have been sold worldwide, reducing child labor in the carpet industry by an estimated 75 percent.

When GoodWeave removes a child from exploitative labor, it breaks a cycle of illiteracy, poverty, and human suffering. GoodWeave sends rescued children to school and ensures that trained adults take their place in the workforce. This leads to improved health, increased earnings, and better lives for workers and their children.

Others have now taken over Kailash Satyarthi’s factory raids, along with his Global March campaign that in 1999 resulted in the ratification of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor. But he continues to innovate and continues leading the world in ending the scourge of child labor.

The label and the organization he created are working alongside him to help finish the task. GoodWeave aims to emancipate the last 250,000 children working the carpet looms by 2020.

Kailash believes that everyone has a role to play in ending child slavery. GoodWeave recently launched a campaign called “Stand with Sanju,” inspired by the true story of a Nepalese girl who went from carpet loom to classroom. The campaign asks people to sign a petition during End Child Slavery Week (Nov. 20-26) calling on the United Nations to make ending child slavery one of its Sustainable Development Goals.

This is Kailash’s latest feat of engineering, and he’s calling on everyone to join him.

• Nina Smith is executive director of GoodWeave International. This article is published in association with SkollWorldForum.org.

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