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Presentation by Kailash Satyarthi

 

International Conference on Children, torture and other forms of violence Facing the facts, forging the future Tampere, Finland 28 November, 2001

 

Enough words are spoken on child slavery. Enough pieces of literature and legislation are written. And, enough promises are made at national and international fora by our politicians on child slavery. But who says it is dead? It persists and perpetuates in many forms very much patronised and encouraged by an anti-child mindset, the greediness of employers and total callous attitude of lawmakers and implementors.

 

When a child enters into slavery, another blot is put on the face of humankind, another heinous crime against the future is committed. Any restriction on the freedom, smile, natural expression of a child is a torture. This sometimes may be invisible but kills the human potential, dignity and rights.

 

The challenge is no small order. As always, greed is the engine driving this slave trade, with the annual earnings from trafficking reaching up to between $5 billion and $7 billion. Often the very officials paid to protect women and children are the wealthy beneficiaries of the trade. Organised crime is now also a major player in the field as the profits from human trafficking rival those of both drug smuggling and arms trading."

Only yesterday, I was accompanying a group of children, some of them were former slaves, who knocked the doors of each single Member of Parliament of India in the chilly capital asking them to pass a constitutional amendment bill to make quality education a fundamental right for all children upto 18 years of age. Ashraf and Shail were also among the group. 10-year-old Ashraf was rescued by my organisation 'South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude' four years ago when he was only 6 from the house of a government bureaucrat. The boy had been engaged through a middleman as a domestic help to look after the younger kids of the master. The boy's parents were told that he would also be sent to school like the master's children and be given a good government job after completing his studies. Instead, Ashraf was forced to do all household chores like cleaning the floor and utensils, washing clothes, which were too hard. He was never allowed to come out of the house for months together and kept under lock and key when the family went away. One day, the poor boy fell sick and could not complete his work. As punishment, he was kept hungry for the whole day. In the late evening, he was given a glass of milk, not for him, but to be given to the master's young child. The little master finished almost but a few drops were still left over. Hungry Ashraf drank it assuming nobody was watching him. But, he was not so fortunate. The angry master and his wife decided to punish him. They caught his hands and dragged him to the kitchen where the cooking gas was on. They charred his hands in the burning flames and perhaps it was not enough. They heated up an iron rod and branded his face and back. He cried for his mother and to God for help. The whole world was deaf to him and he lost his speech. When we came to know, we rescued him and brought to the police who did not want to help us out as the employer was a high profile officer. The matter was then brought by SACCS to the National Human Rights Commission, a government quasi-judicial institution, which took a serious note and initiated a legal action.

 

Shail, a fourteen year old girl, did realise the meaning of freedom only when we were able to liberate her family from a stone quarry through judicial action. Her parents were trafficked from a central province of Madhya Pradesh to a northern Indian State Haryana by a mafia agent even before Shail's birth. Her parents were working as slave labourers with nominal wages for years and never allowed to leave the premises. She was compelled to break stones at the age of 7 or 8 without wages. Shail could not see the outside world until she was thirteen, and suddenly taken away by her employer's relatives who sexually abused her. The innocent girl was so traumatised that she started hating every single man. It took her months to be able to trust me and my colleagues enough to open up to us. It was a great moment when she asked me "am I still a child, Uncle?" When I said to her "Yes, my daughter, definitely you are", she laughed, jumped and hugged me as her childhood came back.

 

Child slavery exists in many forms and manifestations, not only in India or Asia, but many other parts of the world such as Africa and Latin America. The bonded labour system is common in South Asia but also persists in the Southern hemisphere. This system has two main kinds. The first is debt bondage where the parents or their ancestors who have borrowed some money from their respective landlords or employers are forced to continue working in bondage indefinitely. So, any children born into such families are born in to a life of slavery. In other cases where the parents are given some loan or advance in exchange for their child's employment by an employer, the child is trapped into bondage forever, as the interest on the loan is far too great to ever repay. The second is the customary bondage. In this kind, if children, especially girls, are born into a particular tribe, caste or community, they are bound to pay their services as slave labourers to their employer without any economic consideration. The bonded labour system mainly exist in agriculture sector where the landless agriculture labourers borrow money from their landlords at the time of recruitment. They are never paid statutory minimum wages and sometimes are paid no wages at all except nominal food material. It becomes impossible to pay off the bondage debt. They are also forced to borrow more money from their master in the occasion of illness, birth, death, marriage in the family, which only compounds their miseries. In most cases, the families are illiterate and are forced to put thumb impressions on blank paper. There is no rule to determine the interest rate. So, everything depends on the master's desire. This becomes a dark endless tunnel of slavery. Moreover, the situation of the children of bonded families are most vulnerable. They have no identity even as child labourers or bonded labourers. When a legal action is taken, it is only the head of the family or sometimes adults considered in the definition of bonded labour and the children's plight remains invisible.

 

Child prostitution is another form of child labour which is rampant in many countries, especially South-East-Asia, West Asia, Eastern Europe and Central America. Most of these girls, and sometimes boys, are lured away, kidnapped or trafficked into towns and cities by middlemen and pimps. The enormous profit margin for the traffickers along with the cooperation they get from the authorities make the situation nearly impossible for the children to escape from. Along with mental agony, all kinds of physical torture are meted out if the child prostitutes do not fulfill their master's and customer's desires. They are confined to small corners and forced to satisfy several customers even if they are sick. They are beaten up, branded and even poked with burning cigarettes on their private organs. They are kept hungry and are sold from one place to another like animals.

 

Forced child beggary, which is where children are subject to torturous mutilation and then put to beg on streets, exists in many countries. We have taken up the case of about fifty children who were taken from remote villages of West Bengal and other Eastern Indian States to Saudi Arabia. Their hands and legs were mutilated and they were forced to beg from early morning till evening. All of their daily income went to the pockets of the gangsters who employ them. If the children were not able to collect the desired amount, they were punished by way of starvation and physical abuse. When they cried for their parents, they were tied up with ropes and hung upside down from the ceiling. To earn the sympathy of the street donors, these children are kept half or fully naked in the chilly nights. Again, any donation of clothing or woolens is taken immediately by their masters. One can find the same children naked on different streets night after night.

 

The use of children for petty crimes and drug trafficking still continues. They are tortured by their master if they miss the target. They are arrested and tortured by the police if they are caught. They are sexually abused and otherwise tortured by the elderly people if they are put in police custody or jail for sometime. In some cases of drug trafficking, they incur torture from the rival gang in caught.

 

The game of camel racing in the Middle East is still tainted with the use of children as jockeys. Only a few years back, my organisation took up the case of a group of Bangladeshi children who were being returned to their home country from the Middle-East. A 7 or 8 year old girl, Siri who was trafficked for domestic slavery, told me that she was the witness to her brother's death while tied down on a camel's back. She recalled the pathetic scene when some children were used as camel jockeys to make camels run faster. When the children cried louder, the camel ran faster. On the other hand, when the camel ran faster, the children cried more. The loud screams of terror from the children made the camel owners happy. When some children fainted the owners and the audience were cursing the parents of the weak children. And, a boy whose delicate life could not withstand such inhuman torture was Siri's brother.

 

In the name of religion, the children are offered or given to the fundamentalist religious institutions, for extremist education and training or sexual and other uses. Take the case of formation of Taliban where the young kids are trapped into virtual slavery by fundamentalist groups to become child soldiers. The terrorist groups and gangsters engage young children in their motives by giving them guns in their tiny hands. Of course, some youngsters were brainwashed systematically to become violent in their tender ages. Another example is of 'Devdasis' in India. In some parts of South and West India, the young girls are involuntarily offered to some temples as 'slaves of God'. In reality, this means that they are sexually abused throughout their lives by their so called 'Gurus' or priests and sometimes, are forced to act as child prostitutes. They also suffer through the torture of beating, being physically tied down and being starved nearly to death. In cases where these girls get pregnant through their abuse, they are forced to abort their children or return to their family and community who will never accept them.

 

The fast growth of middle class in the era of globalisation is a phenomena where most adult members of the family engage in earning to meet their consumer deeds. This often leads to families looking for outside domestic help. Too often, children are seen as the most suitable for domestic work as they are the cheapest, docile and physically and mentally vulnerable. They could be abused and tortured easily. Ashraf was one such example of the millions of children whose opportunity for education, play and a normal childhood have been stolen by a life of work.

 

At the root of many of these manifestations of child slavery is another crime against humanity: child trafficking.

 

The United Nations has proclaimed August 23rd as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition, but this has done little to ease the pain of the children and adults still being trapped for prostitution, domestic servitude, forced beggary and other abuses.

 

With conservative estimates placing the number of trafficked humans at 700,000 each year, many of them very young children, the issue is hardly just a matter of historical reflection. A rapidly growing problem, the present rate of trafficking is already ten times greater than the trans-Atlantic slave trade at its peak. By the US government's own estimates, if current trends continue, more people will be forcibly brought to the United States in the next ten years than in the four centuries of the slave trade.

 

Children are the easiest prey for traffickers. This past April the world was shocked when a slave ship carrying at least 43 children docked on the West African coast - but this was only the tip of the iceberg. In all corners of the world, the young flesh of children is a valued commodity for easy exploitation. Over 3,000 Albanian children have been trafficked to Italy and Greece where they are forced to beg or clean car windows. Every year an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 Nepali girls, some as young as 9 or 10 years old, are trafficked to the red light districts of Indian cities. In some parts of Benin, one in every six children is sent abroad for a life of domestic servitude.

 

The Global March Against Child Labour chaired by me, representing over 2000 partner organisations in 140 countries, has appealed to the UN for action. We have called for the formation of an Emergency Taskforce to Stop Child Slavery and Trafficking.

 

The challenge is no small order. As always, greed is the engine driving this slave trade, with the annual earnings from trafficking reaching up to between $5 billion and $7 billion. Often the very officials paid to protect women and children are the wealthy beneficiaries of the trade. Organised crime is now also a major player in the field as the profits from human trafficking rival those of both drug smuggling and arms trading.

 

All this go on. We criticize. We pass resolutions. We bring it to media. And, we engage ourselves back to our routine business. Why is not there a strong sense of urgency? Simple, they are not our biological children. And, they are not the one who have a direct stake in the political affairs in their societies.

 

Being engaged in the fight against child slavery primarily in India but also in other parts of the world, I am convinced that poverty is no reason to justify the slavery of children. There are international conventions, constitutional provisions and local laws to prohibit this evil all across the world but what is lacking is the political will and social action. The laws are not implemented as I have personally come across a very deep and dubious nexus among the local politicians, law enforcement machinery, police and the offenders. In a number of instances, we have also experienced that legal procedures and systems of delivery of justice are very complicated, time consuming and expensive. In case of trafficked or enslaved children, it becomes next to impossible to bring them for hearing and evidences before the court each time from their native villages to the area of torture where the offenders are influential and the State machinery hostile. It is extremely unsafe and dangerous.

 

It does not mean that nothing could be changed. I would like to admire the initiatives and efforts of ILO under the most inspiring leadership of Mr. Juan Somavia or the measures taken by UN Human Rights Commission led by Ms. Mary Robinson in putting an end to the evil of child slavery and torture. Similarly, a number of governments even in poorer countries are making efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labour which includes slavery and child trafficking. The civil society is much more active and vigilant than ever before at all levels: local, national and international. My own organisation in India, SACCS has successfully liberated over 55,000 children from bonded slavery over the last twenty years. Some of our formerly rescued and rehabilitated children are now the leaders and liberators in their own communities.

 

Let me conclude with a quote from Pradeep, a 11 year old boy, who is a brilliant school going child, living in one of the rehabilitation centres run by SACCS. Thank God! He is alive. Last year, he was taken to be sacrificed in a temple as his head was supposed to be offered to a Goddess. The family and the villagers were facing some illness and famine just after the birth of this boy, so they believed that he was an evil spirit and must be sacrificed for the best of everyone. When he was taken for butchery late in the night, he suddenly woke up and raised his head to see what was going on. His life was saved by a fraction of second as the butcher's sword hit the crown of his rather than the targetted neck. Thrown to the side of the road and left for dead, the near lifeless boy was saved and later brought to our centre. Deeply traumatised, he had lost all trust in other people. It was only after months of intensive care and affection that he began his journey to recovery. Last week, Pradeep composed a few lines of a song and sung it before me. The poem says "nevertheless, you may have not given birth to children like us, but we are still your children if you believe in God who is the father of all of us. We are your children because the mother earth where we live belongs to us all and so the moon and sun, no one can stop the wind flowing from my place to your place which is filled with all my tears and smiles, my anger and love, no one can remain untouched with this wind."

 

In the era of the globalisation of economies, markets, information technologies and even terrorism, we cannot afford to ignore the sacred words of this innocent boy which are perhaps a warning and vision to save the future of humankind. Let us come together by committing ourselves not in words but in action to put child slavery in the graveyard forever.

Kailash Satyarthi... the seeker of truth
Copyright © 2014 Kailash Satryarthi