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Interview: Indian Peace Prize Laureate Looks To Join Forces With Malala

  • Abdul Hai Kakar

After sharing this year's Nobel Peace Prize with Malala Yousafzai (right), Kailash Satyarthi (left) is hoping to join forces with the Pakistani schoolgirl to help raise awareness about children's rights in the South Asia region.

After sharing this year's Nobel Peace Prize with Malala Yousafzai (right), Kailash Satyarthi (left) is hoping to join forces with the Pakistani schoolgirl to help raise awareness about children's rights in the South Asia region.

Kailash Satyarthi has made fighting for children's rights his life's work, earning the Indian activist a share of this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Now, the 60-year-old Satyarthi is looking to team up with the young woman he shared the award with -- Pakistan's Malala Yousafzai -- to bring peace, tolerance, and nonviolence to children everywhere.

RFE/RL: What went through your mind when you found out you were sharing this year's Nobel Peace Prize with Malala Yousafzai, the young woman who was shot by the Taliban in Pakistan?

I was quite thrilled, let me tell you, because, first of all, she is a very bright and courageous young lady and she has many, many more years than me to serve her country as well as the entire world. It's very important. She is a girl -- that's even more important in our regional context in South Asia. Then, because our issues are common -- [our work] is related with the most oppressed children in our region.

I spoke to her after the announcement of the [Nobel] Prize. We shared that we should jointly raise many issues in our region, but most importantly I have invited her to work [on]...and join an initiative that we call Peace For Children and Children For Peace. We want to engage youth and children in the issues of peace in our areas and our cause, [and] also globally, to give children the aim [to work] for tolerance, peace, and nonviolence in our world. But also we have to create an India and a Pakistan -- not just some parts of India or some parts of Pakistan, but an entire region and an entire world -- where no child is born and bound or compelled to grow up in an environment of fear, and terror, and insurgencies, and wars, and conflicts. Children must not be forced to fear the noise of bombs, and guns, and bullets. They must be given toys and books to ensure that they can enjoy the fullness of their childhood and the fullness of their future.

RFE/RL: Malala asked you to invite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend the upcoming Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo. You met him recently -- did you extend an invitation?

I did not invite him, frankly speaking, though I told Malala and everyone that I wish that Malala's wish is fulfilled. But I don't have much understanding about diplomacy and politics of that level and I am not a very famous person who could really ask the prime minister of India to do something in this regard. But I promised and I am very committed to working both in India and Pakistan for not only the betterment and rights of children, but also to establish peace in our nations. Sustainable peace will only come when the people respect each other's viewpoints, people start listening to each other and respect the present and the future, and believe that our future is common and shared and we have to work for peace together. The demand for peace should come from the people and people must understand the value of friendship and peace. Sustainable peace comes through the people so that governments can act on it.

RFE/RL: What were your feelings upon hearing you had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?

I immediately thought that this was the biggest recognition of the most deprived children in the world -- the children who are enslaved, who are sold and bought like animals, the children who are born into situations of conflict, war, and terror, children who are forced to live in terror and leave their school and childhood to live in fear and slavery. So it is a great tribute to all those children and it will help them, giving them more visibility and voice and strength.

RFE/RL: What was the reaction among the children you help?

Oh, wow! Yeah, actually, we live with a number of children whom I freed in India at least, so I have got a kind of most exciting, most moving congratulations, tears -- they were crying and hugging each other and kissing and they were so excited.

All of them know Malala and they have a big respect for her because when she was shot at, in our ashrams -- in our places -- we organize prayers for her in India. And then I met Malala and I was with her family in the Netherlands two months ago and I was talking to my children in India whom I work with and they were all excited to know that the prize has gone to Malala and me together.

RFE/RL: Out of all the children you have helped, does any one of their life stories stick out?

The child whom I freed many years ago from stone mining -- stone quarry, from bonded labor. He spent about 12-13 years in our center, in a rehabilitation center -- what we call "Bal Ashram" -- and now he is studying law. So somehow because of his family pressure or also because of the life he has gone through, his family has gone through -- the poverty and misery and exploitation -- he wanted to become a corporate lawyer. But suddenly [one] day he decided that he wanted to become a human rights lawyer and wanted to work for the rights of children and human beings, rather than work for the corporate sector.

RFE/RL: Can you describe the situation in South Asia when it comes to child labor and slavery?

South Asia, unfortunately, has been a hub of many serious issues related to violence against children. Child slavery and child labor are also violence against children. So I see most of the miseries which the children are facing -- be it child marriages, be it trafficking of children, or bonded labor, slavery. Even the denial of education is violent.

We see that the whole South Asian region -- India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka as well in some parts -- have serious issues in relation to children and particularly child labor. After Africa, South Asia is an epicenter of these problems with children, so it's quite an issue. Actually, in the late 80s -- 1987-88 -- me and some of my colleagues initiated the first-ever regional coalition against child labor and child servitude -- what we call the South Asian Coalition Against Child Servitude, or SACCS. SACCS was the first sub-regional entity of civil-society organizations or people [involved in this cause] on any issue. Coincidently, that issue was child servitude in South Asia. That was the beginning of our movement in South Asia. We have been working in India but we expanded to Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. I had an opportunity to travel across South Asia and [its] most remote places -- not only in India, but also in Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka a little bit, but Pakistan and Nepal I have travelled through a lot and tried to raise this issue along with my local friends.

RFE/RL: If you had to compare India and Pakistan in terms of child labor or slavery, where would you say the situation is more severe?

It's very difficult to say, actually. It depends from situation to situation. We see the intergenerational bonded labor system. We see the modern-day slavery or modern forms of child slavery, including trafficking of girls and boys to work as domestic help or to work in small-scale factories, including the garment industry, textile industry, carpet industry. These things are quite common in both countries.