A World in Which Children are Bought and Sold



Kailash Satyarthi

Chairperson, Global March Against Child Labor

President, Global Campaign for Education


The following is an edited transcript of a presentation given on November 9, 2007 at the World Congress of NGOs in Toronto, Canada, for the Opening Plenary Session: Ethical NGOs, Forces for Peace.



We live in a world of digits. Digitalization of information, even our voices, our faces, everything is digitalized into a small chip. It is getting more and more mechanical, more materialistic. We, the people of the non-governmental sector who work with the communities with the children, with the women, with the indigenous people, are an alternative to this mechanization of human sensitivities and digitalization of everything. We bring the life, we bring the soul, we bring the life lesson of being human beings, and that is the power of NGOs.


We live in a world -- what we call the globalized world -- with the globalization of market economies, and so on. But this is also a world in which we find the fusion of three key powers: the power of state, the power of market economies, and the power of knowledge. The fusion of these three powers have formed a power troika. The people who have this market power, this economy power are the ones with the political power; they are the ones who purchased the power of most sophisticated and most advanced knowledge.


There has been some time when the people with knowledge used to challenge the markets, and the politics and powers. But now it seems that everything is joining together. And these three powers are consumed in the hands of fewer people in developing countries, as well as in the hands of fewer countries in the entire world. And the challenge that comes to break that vicious cycle of the power troika comes from the third sector and that is NGOs. That is the silver lining. Otherwise, we are trapped into a world in which the markets and economies and consumerism and the political powers are in fewer hands.


Selling children for one-twentieth the price of a buffalo


I work with children who are enslaved, children who are trafficked, sold and bought like animals and sometimes worse than animals. Three months ago, we organized a big march against the trafficking of children for slavery and forced labor in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. One evening I sat beside some children who were talking with themselves, when one young girl from India asked another young girl from Nepal: “How many times have you been sold?” The Nepali in turn was talking to some boys and girls in Bangladeshi, and asked the same question. “Tell me, how many times have you been sold? And for how much money have you been sold?” One of the boys said that “I have been sold for 1,000 rupees.” That is something like $25. Another said that “I was sold for about $30.” So, 20 to 30 dollars each.


The evening we sat in a village with thousands of villagers welcoming us and we had a mass meeting. I asked this question to the villagers in Nepal. “How much does a buffalo cost in your village?” Someone said something like 25,000 rupees. This means about $500. The girl and boys cost 20 to 30 dollars, and the buffalo in the same area costs $500. This reflects how some children in the world are treated. And the children understand this.


Global March Against Child Labor


When we organized a global march against child labor in 1998, across 103 countries, it was the first ever social movement against child slavery and child labor and the exploitation of children. This was a physical march that went on for over six months. Many children were marching with us.


One person marching with us every day was a Sudanese boy. He was very tense, very long faced, and not becoming friendly with anybody. I knew his story. As a fifteen year old boy, he had been kidnapped from his village by illicit militant groups. And the first lesson given to him, on his second night of captivity, was to kill his own family members. This was done so that all his sentiments, all his emotions, all his childhood was lost, and the boy and the machine gun become as one. So if he was ordered to kill anybody, he could kill anybody. The boy was asking, after a few days of marching, “But tell us, this has happened to me. I don’t trust my government, I don’t trust my people. Tell me how it would change? In the case of many of my friends who could be kidnapped and asked to kill their family members, who would do it?” This is the question “who will do it?” that I am bringing before you. If not me, who will do it?


Half a million, or probably a million children, are given sophisticated machine guns in the hands instead of offering them books and toys. You can find it not only in Africa but also in my country, especially in India, Nepal, the Maoist insurgent groups. They are giving guns in the hands of younger children. In Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers, are giving guns in the hands of younger children. And this is widespread.


Global Campaign for Education


The Global Campaign for Education happens to be the biggest civil society network including teachers, unions, and trade unions, as well as NGOs, in the world.


In April of 2007, we organized a congressional hearing at Capitol Hill. There was a young girl, 14 or 15 year old girl, who we call Patricia (not her real name). She came to present on behalf of Latin American children and spoke before a bipartisan committee of congressmen and senators. She was working on the street. Her family was very poor because the father had been killed by a militant group, and the mother was sick, and the young girl had to work. Someone had taken her to work as domestic child labor. The master that employed was not a good guardian to her. Patricia was repeatedly raped, and finally she became a fourteen-year-old mother, a fourteen-and-a-half-year old mother. She ran away from that place, and she had no money, and the child was born.


The girl asked the senators and congressmen in the United States: “Do you think that am I still a child? Or am I a mother? You would think that I am a child for I am giving testimony here, but I am no more a child because I am a mother, a fifteen-year-old mother.” Who is the responsible for poverty? Are these children? She asked, “My father has been assassinated in front of my eyes, at my home, on the doorstep. Am I responsible, being a child?”


And that is the question that millions of children may ask. No war in the world, no conflict in the world, no violence in the world has been created by children. They are not responsible, they are just victims. They are not sinners, they are the victims of poverty, and conflicts, and wars, and violence. Why? This question comes from a young girl who is a child and a mother.


The Scope of the Problem


Over two million children were assassinated in the conflicts and wars in the last decade. Six million children have been injured, mutilated, and they are not able to live a normal life now. Since 2002 to now, 14 million children have been displaced from their hometowns and home countries, and they have become orphans, they have become asylum seekers, they have become non identities. These children are the victims of conflicts and wars.


In 2002 alone, according to the UN Secretary General’s Report on Violence, 53,000 children have been killed as a result of homicide (not war-related). There is violence in homes, in schools, in neighborhoods. Numerous children, boys and girls, have been sexually raped, sexually abused during that time. WHO estimated that 150 million girls and 73 million boys under 18 experienced forced sexual intercourse or other sexual violence. In 2004, it is estimated that 218 million children were involved in child labor, with 126 million of these in hazardous work. In 2000, it is estimated that 5.7 million were in forced or bonded labor.


And that is why we congregate here: To organize this important congress under the banner of peace. Peace is not a political discourse only. Peace is not a religious and ethical issue only. Peace is very much a child rights issue. Every child who is born on this earth, born with certain rights and dignities to live in peace, to live in nonviolent environment, to be given all the possibilities to grow and develop himself or herself. And that is being denied today, and we have to look into peace with the eyes of children, not with eyes of adults.


A Child-centric Development Paradigm


Sometimes I feel a little bit ashamed that I am an adult person: The adults are the policy makers; the adults are controlling the economies of the world. We are NGO leaders. Sometimes we wonder that because it is an adult-made world, an adult-run world, where are the voices of children? The development paradigms are adult-centered paradigms.  Forgive me, please, but normally we see that the politicians look for the next elections. It is not the futuristic paradigm.


But when you bring the children in focus, when you bring the issues of childhood and protection of child rights and childhood in focus -- what we call the child-centric development paradigm, the child-centric politics, the child-centric economy -- then it becomes a futuristic paradigm of development that we have to emphasize.


To put this into context, over one billion of children are poor children. We must know that 218 million children are victims of various forms of child labor. Their childhood is stolen. People say that they are poor and that is why they are working, but people forget that they are working and that is why they have been poor for all of their life. If you allow child labor to happen then they will remain poor, they will remain illiterate, they are going to become sick, they are going to ruin the job opportunities of the adult people. In most countries where we have large number of child labor we have equal number or more adults jobless and most times the parents of these very children are jobless adults. The vicious circle has to be understood. 218 million children are the victims of child labor.


Six key deficits


The issues of children include violence against children (or the peace-related issues of children), the economic exploitation of children, and many other issues, such as illiteracy of children. According to a recent UNESCO report, 77 million children are illiterate and have never been to school. The exploitation of children, the violence, poverty, and illiteracy are part of a paradigm that we have to break by way of ensuring good quality and free education for all children.


Education is not always for money or not always for employment. Education is for empowerment, education is for breaking the vicious circle of poverty and exploitation, injustice, gender inequalities and gender injustice. That is why the education for all children, good quality education for all children, is the key to that.


There are six key deficits that we face to restore the peace for children and child rights. One is the political deficit. One is the financial deficit. Another one is the social deficit: there are a lot of traditions and practices that allow exploitation of children and violence of children to occur. An important deficit is the deficit of knowledge. And finally the moral deficit is the key thing. The NGOs have to fill the deficits by way of making at every level stronger humans.


Some Encouraging Results


When we organized the Global March Against Child Labor, we saw important results. Millions of children were mobilized. And we saw the power of mobilization of common people.


The power of children themselves is the key because children bring tremendous moral power, which cannot be challenged by any political leader in the world. And that we have seen when hundreds of children gathered in ILOs general assembly in Geneva, demanding that we need one comprehensive law to combat the worst forms of child labor in 1998. No head of the state, no labor minister had courage to say no to the children when the children themselves sat on the dais and said “We want a comprehensive law.” Next year, for the first time in the history of United Nations, an ILO convention to stop the worst forms of child labor was unanimously adopted by all member states. And so far over 160 countries’ Parliaments have ratified it. That has become the fastest ratified ILO convention.


And that’s why we, in association with UNICEF, UNESCO, and a number of non-governmental organizations in the world, are planning to organize another big movement, and that is the Children’s Global March for Peace. What we are emphasizing for the future is to build a children’s movement for peace to advance their own rights against all kinds of violence against them. We hope that with a strong civil society and a strong NGO fraternity, we are going to make this world better.