Friday, October 10, 2014

Kailash Satyarthi, Nobel Prize Winner, 2014

Image by Red Hill Productions from the
Oregon Public Radio link below. 
This year's Nobel Peace Prize is shared between Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi.  She is world famous but he is less well-known, despite having spent most of his life dedicated to his work against child labor and slavery.  I didn't know the name Kailash Satyarthi until this morning, but I'm pleased to learn why he is being honored. Child exploitation is a global issue that needs more public awareness.

Part of my informal education was learning about hand-made carpets in 1965. Even now I recall an exhibition of imported rugs at an excellent local museum where I hung out a lot. The Dildarian Rug Company from New York shipped in an impressive collection of rugs displayed in the largest gallery. A lecture and slide presentation explained the techniques used to make these incredible rugs -- how the frames were strung and each knot tied individually with one of two or three forms, then the most delicate part, the sheering of the knots to set the final depth. The number of knots per square inch is the metric of fineness, starting at forty to sixty (the most coarse) to sometimes hundreds per square inch! There was a Chinese silk rug on display that had over four hundred knots per inch. It shimmered in the light like pearls or finished wood.

But I'm getting carried away with the memory. I became enamored with hand-made carpets (and still am) and can't resist examining the corners every time I see one to count the number of knots. But some years later I learned that many, perhaps most of these rugs were produced by women and children. Because they are small and have little fingers, they are perfectly equipped to sit side by side in front of the loom, each working on a section of each row as the design slowly emerges. The pattern is sometimes from memory but often on a template behind the frame where the design and color scheme can be used to keep track of progress. I cannot imagine, but it must be the most tedious and boring work imaginable, taking days or weeks to produce a single rug.

My appreciation of these rugs was mixed with guilt when I learned some time later about child slavery and exploitation. In my mind those little fingers were like the farm hands that supported the hard but honorable life of American farmers. The reason we still don't have year-round schooling is part of our agricultural heritage. Children were needed during the growing season to work on farms, so in an agricultural economy going to school was secondary to earning a living. In my mind those children were like those who even today help their parents harvesting crops (which they still do among migrant workers in the US, though no one talks about it much).

But where there is a market there will often be unprincipled people making whatever that market is buying -- even if it means exploiting children. So these carpets, romantic as they seem, are too often the products of child labor -- not all that different from sex trafficking. It's part of the backstory of Slumdog Millionaire. So I'm pleased to know that this man, Kailash Satyarthi, is being recognized. Hopefully this will increase awareness of a global issue that receives too little attention.

Something tells me that the Nobel committee made a deliberate gesture dividing this prize between honorees from both India and Pakistan. That significance will not be lost on anyone familiar with that long-standing conflict. That conflict has been in the news lately with latest outbreak of the perennial issue of Kashmir's governance. A more civil reference even appeared in a Facebook comments thread with remarks from both countries. 

Mr. Google found a good link from 2005, Oregon Public Radio, about Kailish Satyarthi...

The New Heroes -- Kailash Satyarthi

Projects: Global March Against Child Labor, Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS), Rugmark
[This acronym gets lost in a search. Following this morning's announcement I expect it will be easier to find, as well as better links for Mr. Satyarthi. This new link is a good place to start.]

Locations: New Delhi, India (headquarters), partners in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka

Kailash Satyarthi has saved tens of thousands of lives. At the age of 26 he gave up a promising career as an electrical engineer and dedicated his life to helping the millions of children in India who are forced into slavery by powerful and corrupt business- and land-owners. His original idea was daring and dangerous. He decided to mount raids on factories — factories frequently manned by armed guards — where children and often entire families were held captive as bonded workers.

After successfully freeing and rehabilitating thousands of children, he went on to build up a global movement against child labor. Today Kailash heads up the Global March Against Child Labor, a conglomeration of 2000 social-purpose organizations and trade unions in 140 countries.

Yet even as he has become a globally recognized figure, Kailash continues the gritty work of leading raids to free slaves. Kailash believes that he must focus on a range of activities -- from the most grassroots to the most visionary -- in order to win the fight.

What Does SACCS Do? 
Since its inception in 1989, SACCS and its partners have liberated nearly 40,000 bonded laborers, many of them bonded, working in various industries, including rug manufacturing. But to free such children without offering new opportunities would, in Kailash's view, be meaningless.

Bal Ashram in Rajasthan, India is a transition center where newly-freed slaves are taught basic skills. Kailash describes the arrival of a girl recently freed from a stone quarry: "It's a joyous experience to watch the changing emotions flit across this beautiful girl's face. She's like an open book, and her varying expressions tell us a story: the story of transition from slavery to a new life of freedom. When her face lights up, it is clear she is taking her first steps toward freedom and belief in others."

Since the Ashram can only serve 100 children at a time, Kailash has begun a program called "Bal Mitra Gram" to encourage Indian villages to abolish child labor. In order to be a part of the program, an entire community must agree that no child will be put to work and every child will be sent to school.

While changing India village by village is a worthwhile pursuit, such a strategy could take centuries to achieve Kailash's goal, and he is not prepared to wait that long. So he has begun attacking the problem by harnessing the immense power of market forces.

Many rugs from South Asia are manufactured using child labor. Kailash believes that if consumers around the world knew how their expensive and colorful Indian rugs were made, they would no longer think they were so beautiful. He started "Rugmark," a program in which rugs are labeled and certified to be child-labor-free by factories who that agree to be regularly inspected. Kailash plans to extend the labeling program to other products such as soccer balls, another popular product that is commonly made by children.

Kailash says "If not now, then when? If not you, then who? If we are able to answer these fundamental questions, then perhaps we can wipe away the blot of human slavery."

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