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World Fit for Children

Speech by Mr. Kailash Satyarthi Chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labour At UN Special Session on Children, New York 10 May 2002

The world has never been unfit for the children of kings and queens and of those people who had control over power and wealth for ages. The world was always fit for the children in the holy teachings. Jesus says let the children come to me first. The Vedas proclaimed the children are sacred souls and Islam taught to see the glow of God in the face of a child. I don't think that the world is too bad for the children of most of us who are present here.

We notice that the leaders of the North are not here today. We know that they will be in Canada next month when the G7 finance ministers meet in Halifax, and when G8 heads of state gather in Kananaskis. We will be watching them. The children of the South will be watching them."

However, it is not fit for those millions of children of lesser gods who are sold and bought like animals, confined to the mines and brick kilns as slaves, locked in the factories and houses, stitching soccer balls, polishing gems, carving wood, knotting carpets, working alongside the glass furnaces, trafficked for domestic labor, forced into beggary where sometimes their tiny organs are mutilated to gain more sympathy; or for those who are victims of armed conflicts, ethnic violence and even the victims of development related displacement. It is also not fit for the young girls trapped in the flesh trade, or for the kids who are tied down on the backs of camels in the gulf countries where screaming of a child makes the camel run faster and his master is happy. It is not fit for those who were denied the basic right to education or forced to leave school due to poverty and unable to meet the fees and other expenses of schooling.

The world was not fit for Gulabo who had her last breath in my lap and I bring here her memory. For 14-year-old girl Gulabo education meant life and liberty.

Her father worked as a slave laborer at brick kilns for years together with his family. Gulabo was born and brought up as a slave and was afflicted with severe malnutrition and tuberculosis. They were tortured and abused, sexually, physically and mentally. They were never paid any wages except for poor quality food to barely survive. A few years back, with the help of the Supreme Court of India, I liberated this family and 27 others in a secret raid. When I brought them to my office the condition of Gulabo deteriorated and she collapsed. Her last words were, "I want to live, mother." When her father, accompanied by me, was asked to sign the papers to release the dead body from the mortuary, he said, "If I were literate, my family and I would never be in slavery and I would not have lost my daughter." He explained that his employers took thumb impressions on papers against any amount of money, which he could never read and understand, pushing him into perpetual slavery. This is not just one family but the reality of millions trapped into slavery even in the 21st century only because they are illiterate.

The world is not fit for them, not because these children are sinners, but because the vested interests of ruling elites have monopolized all of the opportunities and deliberately do not leave any space for the world's poor children.

Freedom and learning are the two birthrights of every human being. Any activity that takes away these rights is a crime against nature and humanity. Whatever be the reason, if a child is compelled to work at the cost of his freedom and education, it is a shame. It is shame on those who exploit, but a bigger shame on those who offer them fine words and empty promises. Nelson Mandela rightly challenged this saying "Will our legacy be more than a series of broken promises."

2002 will be a historic year for the world's children if we only honor the promises we have already made to them. This is the year when over a hundred Governments have to show concrete results in wiping out the scourge of child slavery and prostitution, and use of children in armed conflict and other hazardous work. This is the year when the world community is committed to make the concrete and time-bound action plans to ensure Education for All goals. This is also the year when the industrialized countries have to keep their promises to mobilize additional resources to ensure free and quality education for all children in developing countries especially for girls.

I strongly suggest the five measures must be taken to make the world really fit for all children. I underline all, not just some.

  • Free quality education for all as the key to social justice, equity and combating poverty
  • A greater share for poor in the world's income
  • Global trade with fairness.
  • The growing loss of livelihoods and dignity can only be prevented by measures to safeguard and sustain the natural resources on which poor people depend.
  • Peace is everyone's right.

We in the Global March have been campaigning that at least 0.1% of the rich countries' GDP should be committed for children from ODA. This is the least that the world can commit for them. This meager amount for them comes to $25-30 billion, which would be more than sufficient to ensure their freedom, health and education.

The present trend of global trade is marginalizing the poor and taking away their land, livelihood, liberty and dignity. Children are becoming the worst victims of this unjust process. Not only that, hundreds of thousands of children are toiling in the production of goods for international market.

With regard to education, we demand the developing countries to meet their obligation to the people and to prepare credible, time-bound and concrete national action plans involving civil society by the end of 2002 as they promised in the World Education Forum in Dakar two years ago.

There must not be any levy on learning. Tuition fees, books, stationery and any expenses of schooling should be completely abolished in primary schools. The education should be of good quality, appropriate and relevant. More resources must be channeled to improve access and quality of public schooling available to the poorest children, disadvantaged communities and girls as well as other children in special circumstances such as child laborers.

Last month the world's finance and development ministers endorsed an EFA Action Plan to mobilise the additional resources needed to provide every child with a free, quality primary education.

We commend the Netherlands, Germany and the World Bank for announcing that they will back this plan with substantially increased financing for basic education. We appreciate the commitments made by the US and Canada to also increase aid to education, and we call on them to endorse the EFA Action Plan, which represents the best chance in welcoming a generation of children fully enjoying their rights to education. We call on the leaders gathered here to unite behind this single and comprehensive plan of action, which will channel support to governments' own national strategies, rather than fragmenting efforts or imposing more conditionalities.

We notice that the leaders of the North are not here today. We know that they will be in Canada next month when the G7 finance ministers meet in Halifax, and when G8 heads of state gather in Kananaskis. We will be watching them. The children of the South will be watching them. Too often the G8 has filled its communiqués with platitudes while dishing out media-friendly mini-initiatives. We will judge the success or failure of the G8 Summit on whether it delivers major and additional resources to support the EFA Action Plan, and pledges to immediately fill the financing gap in at least 20 countries that are strongly committed to providing quality education for every child.

We look with great expectations to President Bush, who has shown great commitment to education in the domestic context, to take the lead on education for the world at the G8.

I am not prepared to believe that the world is so poor that it cannot ensure freedom and education for its children.

Only $10 billion a year is needed for universal basic education. It is only 0.02% of global income, or 4 days of military spending.

What we need now is political will. We want action today, and now.

Thank you.

Kailash Satyarthi... the seeker of truth
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