It is a blot on the face of humanity that we have yet to eradicate slavery, of children, no less. Not only does child slavery persist; the number of child slaves, 5.5 million, has remained constant in the last two decades. They are bought and sold like animals, sometimes for less than a pack of cigarettes. Add to their number the 168 million child laborers, 59 million out-of-school children, and 15 million girls under 15 who are forced to marry every year, and the situation is beyond unacceptable.
Eighteen years ago, the Global March Against Child Labour spearheaded a global movement to bring child labor and child slavery to the attention of global leaders. Thanks to the invaluable contribution of fellow activists, workers, educators, and businesses, the campaign was a resounding success, leading to the adoption of the International Labor Organization’s Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention.
Clearly, however, there is much work left to do. That is why the Global March Against Child Labour worked so hard — collecting 550,000 signatures on a petition — to push world leaders to include strong language against child slavery in the Sustainable Development Goals, which will guide global development efforts for the next 15 years. Among the SDG targets is one that aims to ‘eradicate forced labor, end modern slavery and human trafficking, and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor’.
But now it is time to back that promise with concerted action. After all, if child labor, slavery, human trafficking, and violence against children continue, we will have failed to accomplish the agenda’s overarching goal of achieving inclusive and sustainable prosperity. And the responsibility does not lie only with governments; businesses, civil society, and individual citizens must all contribute, not least by pressuring their leaders to make a change.
Consider the situation in India, where impending revisions to two major development policies — the National Education Policy and the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act — are heading in opposite directions. On the one hand, a new education policy has the potential to address child labor as a barrier to education and, more broadly, to improve the life prospects of millions of marginalized and deprived children. On the other hand, the proposed amendments to the Child Labor Act would erect new barriers to further progress on education.
Specifically, the changes to the Child Labor Act would allow children under the age of 14 to help their families in ‘non-hazardous’ family enterprises or the entertainment industry. This may sound innocuous, but it fails to acknowledge a stark and undisputable reality: Work for ‘family enterprises’ can be as brutal as any other kind. And the list of ‘hazardous’ occupations is far from complete.
Before being rescued by my organization, BachpanBachaoAndolan, eight-year-old Arpita was forced to work 16-18 hour days in the home of her uncle as domestic ‘help’. When we rescued her, we had to break down the door. It was the dead of winter, and she was barely clothed and severely malnourished, covered in wounds, and cowering under a rag on her uncle’s balcony.
Likewise, when we rescued ten-year-old Mohsin and eight-year-old Aslam in 2007 from a sweatshop, owned by their uncle, where they made children’s clothing for one of world’s largest garment retailers, they were starving. The jobs performed by Arpita, Mohsin, andAslam would not be considered ‘hazardous’ under the amended act.
In a recent analysis, we found that one-fifth of the children under age 14 rescued by BachpanBachaoAndolan were working in family enterprises. More than 40 percent of the rescued children were performing hazardous jobs — for example, working in roadside restaurants (dhabas) or manufacturing garments, leather goods, cosmetics, or electronics — that would be allowed under the amended act.
There are millions of enslaved Arpitas, Mohsins, and Aslams. But if the proposed amendments are adopted, we will not be able to rescue a single child under 14 years of age who is employed by his or her ‘family’ – no matter how vile the conditions of their servitude. The impact, not just on individual children, but also on the future of our society, will be devastating. On behalf of India’s children, we call upon our parliament to do the right thing and reject the proposed amendments to the Child Labor Act.
Beyond India, the imperative to protect children is just as strong. If we are to realize the future promised in the SDGs, surely we must do everything in our power to protect the fundamental human rights of every person, especially the most vulnerable. That is why governments worldwide must deepen their commitment to pursuing child-friendly policies and investing in the protection and education of their young people.
My colleagues and I have humbly done our part over the years, rescuing more than 84,000 children from despicable conditions. It has not been enough to end the blight of child slavery, but to those children and their families, it has meant everything.
Still, far too many children remain enslaved, missing out not just on their childhood, but also on the chance for a happy, healthy, and prosperous future. It is time for the world to stand up and lend its voice to those whose cannot. We must demand that our leaders fulfill their promise of ensuring that every child’s life is free from exploitation, enriched by education, and full of promise. Our generation can and should be the one that ends child slavery forever.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Honorary President of the Global March Against Child Labour and the founder of BachpanBachaoAndolan