Talking Peace with a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

During her visit to India on 24-25 November, Director-General Irina Bokova met with Kailash Satyarthi, co-laureate of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize and a longtime friend of UNESCO, through his involvement in the Education for All movement as founder and president of the Global Campaign for Education and the Global March Against Child Labour.

The meeting took place in the modest premises of Mr Satyarthi’s Foundation, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, in South Delhi. At the entrance, a blackboard board carries the number of children rescued from bonded labour – 83,657 – while recent newspaper clippings are pinned onto a billboard.

In a conversation with the Director-General, Mr Satyarthi reflected on his fight for children’s rights and shared future concerns. He will receive the Nobel Peace Prize on 10 December in Oslo, with Malala Yousafzai, for “their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.”

What kind of response have you been receiving?

Everyone is feeling encouraged, because presidents, prime ministers, governments, civil society organizations are speaking about education and recognizing also the linkages between child labour and education.  Bachpan Bachao Andolan  has created more than 400 child-friendly villages. These are villages where all children are withdrawn from exploitative labour, there are no child marriages, all children go to school including girls belonging to the low caste. Although it is getting better, this system remains strong in villages, where it is deeply rooted. In India, children who are out of school and child labourers mostly belong to low castes.

How have you created change?

Every day, by talking about rights, not charity for children. We are fighting and fighting every day for children to be withdrawn from exploitation and brought to school. In 2001, we organized a six-long month march from Southern India to the Himalayas, across 20,000 kilometres, demanding for the right to education to be inscribed in the Constitution. 100 million people joined this march. We visited people in remote areas, telling them that education will not only give you access to a job, it gives you the power to bargain, to get out of exploitation and gender discrimination. This gained momentum. We wanted to make a paradigm shift, from education as charity to education as a right. And even if there is a law, people have to be prepared to use that law. During the six-month march, we sensitized people and engaged politicians. We formed a group of 140 parliamentary members from across all parties. This helped, because they became a pressure group, met with the Prime Minister, the President and the opposition, and led to a debate on amending the Constitution of India. (Ed Note: The Right to Education Act was formulated in 2009)

Did you meet resistance?

We met with resistance everywhere. I have been attacked several times.  Religious institutions play an important role.  We have activists from Muslim communities on board. We have also been working in Pakistan and Afghanistan to engage faith leaders. If they take up the cause of education for girls, it is all the more powerful. We always identify religious leaders – Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists – to be involved, because if they are convinced, they can convince others. In addition to the Parliamentary Forum, we organized a Multi-Faith Forum for Education with top religious leaders in India.  Leadership is very important.

How are you working to translate rights into reality?

We are focusing on how to link the child labour and education agendas, through capacity building for teachers, through policy advocacy and legislative advocacy. We are trying to replicate this in other countries, including Bangladesh, Pakistan and Togo. Civil society has to learn how to use the structure of courts to bring about change in child’s rights. We have to help them construct their arguments. They tend to see mobilization as the end goal of advocacy but don’t have the technical know-how to, for example, file a civil action suit when children are trapped in exploitative labour. This legal literacy is important to translate advocacy into legislation, and then for the implementation of education as a right. We are also trying to sensitize State Commissions for the Protection of Child Rights and organized a first meeting last year that was attended by 14 States, because the honest and effective implementation of the right to education is still difficult.

What are some of your future concerns?

I have spoken with Malala about future work. I have suggested to her that 25 years down the road, the biggest crisis that could emerge is violence and intolerance among youth. Youth are lacking in clear directions, look at what we are seeing in the Middle East, in Syria. Intolerance is increasing. We must do more to engage youth in non-violence and peace, to give training in these values, to build groups at global level in which young people can demand to live in peace and non-violence. We have been interacting with youth groups everywhere and passing the message that growth can only come in a non-violent, peaceful environment. We should identify young people in universities to take the lead in this  - to build youth engagement  to bring about more tolerance, more peace and a more non-violent world. The fruit will come in ten years’ time.

You have a very strong Prime Minister who has come out strongly on girls and education.

Yes, he places strong priority on girls. We have to use this opportunity, and to use education as the ‘soft window’ for child labour eradication and children’s rights. In our child friendly villages, the lack of separate toilets for girls is a cause for school dropout. In his Independence Day speech on August 15, the Prime Minister said that all schools in the country should have toilets with separate toilets for girls so that girls do no drop out. This is very significant, he is touching on nerves. It is the first time a Prime Minister has said this openly. It is a very good sign.