Kailash Satyarthi: Even one missing child is a blot on the country

Nov 25, 2018, 07:45 IST | Sonil Dedhia

With a documentary on his struggle to eradicate child labour set to release online this year, Kailash Satyarthi talks how, even if slow, there has been progress in the last few years

Kailash Satyarthi: Even one missing child is a blot on the country
Kailash Satyarthi

It's been a busy month for Kailash Satyarthi. The 64-year-old Nobel Peace Laureate met the Pope on November 16. During the meeting, he appealed for support in constituting more stringent laws against child sex abuse. Later this week, a documentary on his stellar work in child rights will launch on YouTube. In Mumbai to promote the documentary, he says he hopes it will end the menace of child slavery.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

How do you think the documentary will help in changing the social perception of child labour?
Any change starts with consciousness and this documentary is powerful enough to ignite the conscience of common people. We are not preaching anything. What we have shown is that children who are victims of child slavery are willing to change themselves. The film is a big eye-opener because whatever is shown is what I have been working towards for the past 40 years. Film is one of the most powerful tools to sensitise, educate and engage people against child slavery. Many people believe that slavery has been abolished or consider child labour to be a part of day-to-day life only in poor countries, but that's not true. The audience will start questioning the tall promises made by various governments and the United Nations with regard to changing laws and constitutions. Despite these [laws and constitutions], we have around 150 million children working as child labourers [currently]. Maybe, it [the film] will help change the narrative. This film is about the journey from despair to hope and power and the willingness of young people to change themselves and the world.

A still from the documentary
A still from the documentary

In a recent report, Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis revealed that since 2013, a total of 26,000 female citizens, of these 5,056 minor girls, have gone missing in Mumbai. Of these, 2,264 are yet to be found. Where do you think the government is lacking?
Until a decade ago, the issue of missing children wasn't taken seriously. Just before the Nithari scandal happened, some parents [from Delhi and Gurgaon whose children were missing] came to me and I took their complaints to the police, who never bothered to take any action. In 2011, we conducted a nationwide research with the help of the Right To Information Act, and found that the number of missing children [in India] was around 120 million a year. We filed a petition with the Supreme Court and on the basis of it, the then Chief Justice of India, Altamas Kabir, and those who followed him, were so angry with the government, including Maharashtra, that they questioned why cases weren't being registered, and if they were, why there was no clear investigation. Even the Chief Secretaries were summoned by the court. This also became the genesis of inclusion of trafficking in the Indian Penal Code as Sec 370 and Sec 370A in 2013. Most state governments became serious because of which cases were registered and investigations began. So, the result was that the cops were able to trace more children. But, I am aware it is not enough.

Has the situation improved?
Children go repeatedly missing from certain pockets of the country, so the local authorities should be held accountable, especially the local police station. This has been our demand for a long time. Apart from that, we have a certain pending plea in the court, which includes preventive measures that need to be taken by the government and local bodies. The latest situation, according to affidavits submitted by the state as well as central governments, is that in the last seven years, the number has come down to 40,000 missing children a year. There is progress but even if one child is missing in the largest democracy of the world and a country that has the fastest growing economy, it is a blot on the face of every Indian. It is a shameful situation. Exploitation of children amounts to national shame. This needs to be a national priority, rather than a legal priority.

Satyarthi during a meeting with Pope Francis on November 16, to discuss stricter laws regarding child pornography and the issue of child abuse within the church. Pic/Twitter
Satyarthi during a meeting with Pope Francis on November 16, to discuss stricter laws regarding child pornography and the issue of child abuse within the church. Pic/Twitter

You recently met Pope Francis to seek a law against child sex abuse.
We discussed two aspects. The first was fixing the problem of the alleged child sexual abuse in churches. I requested that, in the next Catholic Bishop Conference scheduled for February, there should be a robust roadmap to fight the issue. He was receptive and discussed it in detail. He said that the meeting would be a practical one and offer solutions, so that the institution of the church is cleaned. I also sought support from him for a new United Nations convention against online child sexual abuse, child pornography and child trafficking. This has grown as a multi-billion-dollar industry. I am speaking to leaders across the world for a legally binding convention [in the UN], which should have an internal mechanism to enforce certain international laws, which should be followed by all countries. I am also making a demand for an international task force with extra-territorial jurisdiction. We are also looking at a global helpline so that any desperate child or parent can call to report online abuse. This should be monitored by the Interpol on real-time basis so that help can be reached as soon as possible. The Pope has deputed a senior person from the Vatican to co-ordinate with my organisation on this issue. I believe the meeting was a big breakthrough for me.

What is your future plan of action?
I am trying to attack this grave situation of online abuse from all corners. Last year, more than 8 billion dollars were earned out of porn material. I am calling for an international law. It will be good if support comes from the faith leaders of various institutions across the world since they have a huge influence, both on politics and common people. I am working with various governments and my demand has already been agreed on by 20 Nobel Laureates and many leaders. It has come out as a declaration of Nobel Laureates and we have submitted it to the UN Secretary General in last September's General Assembly.

Has winning the Nobel Peace Prize helped strengthen your mission?
Of course, it has. Earlier there was no Nobel Laureate pushing this agenda. Now there is. The good part is that I am able to meet the presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens and many other global leaders of different countries. They listen and pay attention. In 2000, the number of child labourers [in the world] was 260 million and we have been able to bring that down to 150 million as per the statistics available for 2016. So now, I am more confident of eradicating child labour earlier than 2025.

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