Satyarthi’s Nobel effort finally puts child slavery in list of UN’s sustainable development goals

Indrani Bagchi
Times of India

NEW DELHI: When global leaders gather in New York later next week to discuss and adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), child slavery will form an important part of those goals. 

What a difference a Nobel Peace Prize can make. In 1999, when he was just another NGO for children's rights, Kailash Satyarthi tried to persuade the rest of the world to include child labour, in the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). "I believe without eradicating child labour, we would not be able to fulfil other goals like education or adult employment. ... But it was not attended properly, because five years ago it was just an emerging global idea, so it was very hard to pitch. During those years, in many UN summits, I organized side events to push the idea." 

He was better prepared this time. When the world started working on the SDGs, "we very carefully and systematically started working with those involved in this discussion - governments, NGOs, everyone." But the world had also become a slightly better place in some respect. "The number of child labourers had decreased worldwide, from 260 million to 168 million. The number of out-of-school children also declined form 130 million to 58 million. So significant progress has been made," Satyarthi told TOI in an exclusive chat. 

But child slavery figures had not only stayed constant, but even increased. "That data has not changed -- 5.5 million children in conditions of slavery. Non-government statistics as well as internal figures of UN agencies shows it to be even higher. The number is between 5.5 million to 8.5 million. My sense is, these numbers have increased. Modern forms of slavery, including trafficking of children, has become one of the most lucrative trades in the world. That's why the numbers have increased." 

He felt it was important to include these goals in the SDGs. But most governments were chary of talking about uncomfortable issues like child slavery. "Who will accept that slavery exists in their own countries? It was quite hard, and many governments thought it is a delicate matter. For the past year I have met many governments, special envoys, in their capitals and in NY. But it still found no mention in the drafts." 

But the Nobel Peace Prize changed all that. Since then, world leaders have been beating a path to Satyarthi's door. He has met UN secretary general Ban ki Moon twice, President of South Korea, Prime Ministers of Norway, Sweden, and a host of other countries where he used his new global fame to push the idea that the world needs to tackle child slavery with a special focus. 

"I met President Obama and told him, this was a request from one Nobel laureate to another. He promised to take up the cause." So did Ban ki Moon. And all the issues he has championed - child slavery, education, violence and child labour are now part of the SDGs. 

Satyarthi and Modi will address the same SDG summit next week. But where is India in implementing laws to protect children from violence and slavery? 

Nowhere really. "I met Mr Modi a couple of times. I have requested him to ratify the International Convention on the worst forms of child labour and convention on the minimum age of employment." India, shockingly, stands with Sudan and Eritrea as being a handful of countries to not have ratified the convention. 

"Modi listened to me carefully, and promised a child labour law. Many of his officers had an excuse - until we make a more clear domestic law, we cannot ratify the international convention. But that is an excuse. Most countries have synced their domestic laws to international laws, India can too." 

A draft law exists, he said, but it needs a debate. "I have written to every single parliament member. Children are not going to wait, who are languishing in slavery. They are losing lungs, eyes, kidneys every day. If there is a law we have a tool to fight it."