Kailash Satyarthi, a relatively unknown child rights activist from India, is sharing this year’s Nobel Peace Prize with Malala Yousafzai, a teen campaigner from Pakistan who was shot in the head by the Taliban while going to school in 2012. The reclusive Satyarthi, admittedly nowhere near as famous as his co-recipient, is, however, a messiah for India’s close to 50 million child workers. Satyarthi’s Bachpan Bachao Andolan (loosely translated as Movement to Save Childhood) has to date rescued and rehabilitated more than 80,000 child laborers. Just last month, it rescued 24 child workers between the ages of eight and 15 from a bag and shoe making plant in New Delhi.
Apart from freeing children from forced labor, Satyarthi has also successfully created international awareness about child workers issue by organizing global marches. The international social tag “Rugmark,” created by Satyarthi, is a widely recognized guarantee that a rug or carpet was made in a child labor-free factory. India is the world’s largest exporter of handmade carpets, and a recent report by Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human rights estimates that out of around two million carpet workers in India, approximately 400,000 are underage laborers. The attention his prize has created around the issue of child labor just in the last few hours, Satyarthi says, is overwhelming.
TIME spoke to Satyarthi Saturday about winning the Nobel Peace Prize. This interview has been edited and condensed for space.
TIME: For probably the first time, the entire world and India especially is talking about child rights and child labor, which was a fringe issue. How does that make you feel?
Satyarthi: It’s the biggest-ever recognition for the plight, struggle and issue of child labor worldwide. It will give tremendous impetus to our fight and will undoubtedly inspire hundreds and thousands of social activists and non-profits on the ground, all over the world. The amount of conversations it has created around child labor in the last 6 to 7 hours has not been seen in the last 600 years.
You received the award jointly with Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan are struggling to ensure child rights. Can they work together towards solutions?
I spoke to Malala yesterday after the prize was announced, and invited her to join an additional dimension in the fight for child rights, and that is the right to be free. No child should be born or grow [up] into violence and conflict in any part of the world. Saying that, why just India and Pakistan? The whole world should work together to protect child rights. This is the 25th year of U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and to celebrate this, there is a need on the part of all stakeholders — the civil society, the masses, governments, corporates and even religious institutions — to accept collective responsibility [and stand up to this social evil].
Not many in India knew Kailash Satyarthi before Friday – did you deliberately keep yourself away from the public eye?
I don’t believe in personality cults; I don’t believe in personal image building exercises. Bachpan Bachao Andolan is not merely a non-profit or social or political movement for me – it is my life’s mission. We work in thousands of villages in India and over 140 countries, with limited reach, manpower and resources. The choice was either to invest in image building or in building the movement.
What has been your biggest challenge in the last three decades?
My biggest challenge was, and still is, changing social mindsets and working around political priorities. Child labor is a non-issue in India. It is a social evil and a development disaster. Indians treat poor children either as beggars, giving them food and clothes in charity or employ them as child laborers. There is nothing in between. And when it comes to the notion of child rights, there is zero awareness. I have been fighting to establish that notion, concept and eventually culture that teaches one to respect childhood and treat children with the dignity and respect they deserve.
How is your work different from that of other child rights organizations?
We believe in direct action. We want to free children from modern day slavery and ensure they receive proper rehabilitation. We avoid taking the overall responsibilities of the overall rehabilitation of hundreds and thousands of children as we have limited resources and manpower. What we have instead tried doing is to build a social movement around the issue rather than being a conventional non-profit.
Despite your limited resources, you did not keep your movement confined to India. Instead, you took it to the world stage through your global marches against child labor.
Child labor is not an isolated problem. There are geopolitical issues. There are transnational corporations and industries; there are globalized markets and economies and all these cumulatively create and perpetuate child labor globally. The issues are globally interlinked and that is why it is critical that we build a worldwide movement.
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