The voice of the voiceless

Vinaya Patil
Thursday, 7 September 2017

Catching up with Kailash Satyarthi, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize 2014, who will launch his Bharat Yatra against child labour and abuse from Kanyakumari on September 11

Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, who won the Peace Prize in 2014 and shared it with Pakistan’s Malala Yousafzai, is all set to launch his Bharat Yatra. Born in 1954, Satyarthi has been at the forefront of the global movement to end child slavery and exploitative child labour since 1980. The human rights activist gave up his career as an electrical engineer for his mission of saving India’s children.

He has led the rescue of over 80,000 child slaves and developed a successful model for their education and rehabilitation. As a worldwide campaigner, he has been the architect of the single largest civil society network for the most exploited children, the Global March Against Child Labour, which is a worldwide coalition of NGOs, teachers’ unions and trade unions.

We spoke to the soft-spoken man ahead of the yatra that begins on September 11. Excerpts:

Tell us about the Bharat Yatra...
The Bharat Yatra will begin from Kanyakumari and culminate in New Delhi on October 16. Under the slogan ‘Safe Childhood Safe India’, it is a march against sexual exploitation and abuse of children. After the yatra, around one crore people would be administered a pledge against sexual exploitation and violence against children. There are plans to include social organisations, religious heads, school children and youth in the Yatra which would go on for a period of two months.

It is a one of its kind yatra against rape and child sexual abuse, and will include 8 to 10 public meetings and some street plays would also be performed. Six more yatras from different places in India — from Srinagar, Guwahati etc — will merge into the main yatra that will cover 22 states and spans 11,000 km.

The need for such a yatra at this point?
Children are undergoing lots of abuse left, right and centre. We hear a new case of exploitation of children every other day. We simply cannot sit still and do nothing about it. It’s spreading like an epidemic. I call it an epidemic because the crimes against children are no more limited to strangers committing them. From uncles to a girl’s own father raping her, we have degraded to another level. Families too are often not supportive. When a girl overcomes fear and shame to tell her story, the family often hushes her up to save their honour. We need to get rid of these taboos. The law must be followed. We must create some pressure on the government and spread social awareness on this. This is the time to do it.

Speaking of law, how effective are our laws and our system in addressing child exploitation?
In the first place, a lot of cases go unreported. Because of fear and shame, the victims do not tell their parents or the police. This social taboo needs to break. Coming to our laws, they are very good and strong. The Prevention of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) for instance is an extremely well-intentioned and strong law but we lack severely in implementation. Last year, 1,50,000 cases of child abuse were registered, of which, the conviction rate was four per cent, six per cent cases saw acquittal and 90 per cent cases are still pending in our courts. This is the situation. At this rate, a case takes around 40 years for disposal. All these children are waiting for justice, which they will probably get, after they are old.

How will the yatra tackle these issues?
Today, trafficking is rampant within the country. Boys and girls are sold for all sorts of purposes — pornography, labour, and even terrorism at times. The yatra will go through some sensitive areas like the naxalite zone around Bhubaneshwar and one yatra will join us from conflict-torn Srinagar. Here, children are increasingly being used as shields by extremist forces and at times even as stone pelters. We need to tell our children that they are loved and that they will be taken care of by the country and society. The yatra will try to do that.

How do we as commoners help the cause?
We need to realise that it’s a circle — child labour, adult unemployment and illiteracy. Employers prefer children because they are cheap and flexible labour. As of today, the world’s adult unemployment statistics stands at 21 crore and the number of children working is 17 crore. You see the point? There are 17 crore jobs for all these unemployed adults. We live in a world of knowledge and economy; we cannot get justice — social and economical — without education. And it is completely our government’s responsibility to provide all our children with this very education and then this vicious cycle will be taken care of. We as commoners must be extremely aware of our surroundings, and report child labour, and even take a step forward in helping these children at our individual level.

The situation in India...
Of the 1,000 children working, only two are complete orphans who have absolutely nobody to take care of them. Here is where the role of the welfare state — religious and social organisations — comes to fore. As a society, we only need to take responsibility of these two children. The Juvenile Justice Act is equipped to protect these children. We must use the law to help these children. If we don’t provide these children quality education, they are very likely to turn to crime.

India has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of child labourers but the good news is that our school enrollment rate too is going up. But quality needs to be checked. According to the child sexual abuse report, 53 per cent of India’s children are sexually abused before the age of 18. This is a drastic figure and we need to rescue our children. Among the mountain of work that needs to be done, child-friendly courts is one. We need total protection for victims and witnesses. Fast-tracked courts for children, exclusive courtrooms with judges who have undergone special training and the presence of a child psychologist during trial, are some of the necessities.

Lastly, what does the peace prize mean to you, to India?
(Laughs) For me, it is the strongest and loudest voice for the most voiceless and helpless children. For the first time, these children have been recognised on a global platform and it’s a big recognition for their future.

Kailash Satyarthi’s Bharat Yatra comes to Pune on Sept 26 and will be in Mumbai on Sept 27-28.

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