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Defender of Democracy Award


Acceptance speech by Kailash Satyarthi


20 October 2009 : Thank you so much. I am deeply humbled today. Some months ago when I received information about the prestigious Defender of Democracy award from Parliamentarians for Global Action, I was really surprised to find my name amongst the list of legends of democracy. But the answer came from an 11 year old boy Amar Lal who was born as a slave child in stone quarries. Now, he goes to school and lives in the rehabilitation centre Bal Ashram run by my Indian organization Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA).


A few months ago the annual children’s national Parliament was organized with 160 child Parliamentarians from across the country. Each one of them was an elected representative of village children’s Parliament. Amar Lal was elected by these Parliamentarians as their national President through a secret ballot. He told that we will receive the defender of democracy award because we the children are inculcating experimenting and deepening democracy through child friendly villages. A Child Friendly Village is a community where all children are withdrawn from child labour; all are enrolled in school, girls and boys- lower and upper castes, Muslims, Hindus and Christians form their village children’s Parliament through democratic elections and finally the official village Assembly recognizes the children’s Parliament and agrees to work with them to advance child centric development model in the village. Therefore, I feel that this award goes to all such children.


This is in recognition to a fundamental fact that democracy, peace and sustainability cannot be realized without an equal opportunity for all children to receive free education of good quality which is not possible without total elimination of child labour. This award goes to Mohammed, a 9 year old boy whom I freed along with 95 other children last month. When I was trying to restore the feeling of freedom and self confidence among the children by saying that they are now free and that they will go to school, young Mohammed replied with the concern of a grown up-“I am an embroidery worker and no more a child now. How could I go to school now?” After a couple of weeks when we handed over this boy to his mother, who had lost all hope of getting back her son, she hugged the boy and started crying in joy. Later she told me that she had even lost trust in Allah when I couldn’t get my son back. She said “These tears are a testimony that my hope in life and faith in Allah are restored.” The little boy smiled and said, ‘I wish to go to school’.


This award goes to Mohammed and 78,000 other children who my organization physically liberated from bonded labour and all those mothers and fathers who found their children back in the laps. But it also goes to 218 million child labourers in the world and 75 million girls and boys who have never been to a school. It is an honour to all my colleagues of Bahcpan Bachao Andolan who risk their lives in freeing children in India, particularly to two heroes who sacrificed their lives, martyr Dhoomdas and Adarsh Kishor  and also to those who are fighting for freedom and education for all children in Global March Against Child Labour, Global Campaign for Education, Rugmark and ICCLE etc. 


But let me tell you honestly that this was not possible without the unparalleled support from a man who did not leave any stone unturned whenever my life was in danger during the last two decades. Without his personal and political commitment and leadership, millions of children in agriculture, carpet, clothing, soccer ball, cocoa beans, cotton seeds and many such other industries could not have been freed from labour exploitation. This great man of our times symbolizes the hope and aspirations of millions of children in the world. He is none other than my big brother Senator Tom Harkin. With Tom, I would deeply admire someone who is taking all the pains behind the curtain- she is Rosemary Gutierrez. Please give a big hand to both of them. It would be injustice if I don’t acknowledge the presence of two courageous ladies in this room, my wife Sumedha who has been my true companion during in all the hardships and accomplishments and my daughter Asmita who is one of those children who grew up amongst the all time threat to the life of her father and family.


Today is a day for reaffirming my commitment and pledge to end exploitation of children in all its forms and to ensure education for them. Let me remind you that besides the conventional economic exploitation of children, violence occurs in various forms. More than 2 million children are estimated to have died as a result of armed conflict since 1990. 1 million children are detained by law enforcement officials worldwide. 2 million children are believed to be exploited through prostitution and pornography and 70 million girls and women have been subjected to genital mutilation. More than 1.2 million children are trafficked every year and bought and sold for a price lesser than cattle. 40 million children below the age of 15 suffer from abuse and neglect. Half of the out of school children live in fragile states facing insurgency and conflict.

Children are subjected to violence, exploitation and abuse, and they are at risk of death, poor physical and mental health, HIV/AIDS, illiteracy, displacement, homelessness etc. Several stories reveal that the incidences of violence against children in the countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gaza, Haiti, Sudan, Iraq and numerous other have increased. The situation may be gravely compounded by the current global financial crisis.


I have a strong belief that however grave or complex these problems might be, the solutions are definitely possible, attainable and affordable. We have witnessed it in the last decade. The number of child labourers decreased from 246 to 218 million. At least 40 million more children have been enrolled in schools. 173 countries have committed to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by ratifying ILO Convention 182.


Education is the key to power, justice and equity. Education is fundamental to effective democracy and transparency in global governance. Education for all is the pre-requisite to democratize social, political and financial institutions. 2 ½ days of military expenditure is enough to educate the world’s children or 1/6th of what Europeans spend on cosmetics. Education for our children requires $11 Billion. Is the world really so poor? What we need is a little more push, what we need is a higher amount of political will and accountability and what we need is global action with urgency.


I would like to reiterate that no corporation can sustain and flourish with the destruction of ecology or engaging cheap labour particularly children, directly or indirectly through their supply chain. They must own the responsibility now. Consumers really want to know the chocolate, carpets, flowers are produced free of child labor and forced labor and in respect for workers’ rights, then support for good law, social dialog and effective labor relations in every workplace are the only guarantees.


I strongly believe that the critical need is to invest in deepening and strengthening the world wide movement to address the efforts within the larger poverty and decent work initiatives. Initiatives need to be reoriented to building a genuine domestic ownership of the issues. There is compelling need to harmonize policies and actions around child labor elimination, poverty alleviation and education. We need to rethink and recast our efforts.


In this era of economic globalization, I would recommend 3 more aspects of globalization today- firstly, globalization of knowledge through free and good quality education for all children, secondly, globalization of social and ecological responsibility through corporate action and above all, globalization of compassion through the awakening of our self and collective conscience.


If we fail our children today we fail our future for ever. If we break our promises to them history will not forgive us. We need governments, and we need inter governmental bodies too. But what we need is a strong global movement to hold these institutions accountable and challenge their conscience. We must make exploitation and violence against children a history in our life time. And finally, we must be intolerant and impatient to any kind of violence against any child on the earth.

Kailash Satyarthi... the seeker of truth
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