Education International
Education International

Interview with Kailash Satyarthi

published 13 June 2007 updated 13 June 2007

Kailash Satyarthi is the Chairperson of the Global March against Child Labour and the President of the Global Campaign for Education. For years he has been a tireless children's rights advocate. EI interviewed him to gain some insight into his work and beliefs.

Kailash Satyarthi

1. What are your views on the role of education, and particularly the EFA goals, in the fight against child labour?

Why do children toil in fields, factories and sweat shops? Though many believe that poverty is the cause, the reality is different. Child labour, poverty and illiteracy exist in a triangular relationship with each being a cause and consequence of the other two. Thus any effort to remove child labour must include education and poverty alleviation measures. Conversely, child labour is a hurdle to Education for All. As long as there is even one child who misses out on education because s/he is at work, s/he stands in the way of the EFA goals.

Those who believe that the problem of child labour can be solved merely by enforcing laws should know that it is not that simple. Free, quality, meaningful and compulsory education is one of the most effective (preventive, curative, rehabilitative) and sustainable strategies for the eradication of child labour. Conversely, we can ensure enrolment and more importantly the retention of children in primary and secondary only when a strong effort to eradicate child labour is made. Providing good quality education will encourage children to attend schools.

There are 218 million children engaged in child labour as per the latest ILO report. These children are not only engaged in work and thus losing their precious childhood, but are also missing out on education and a chance for a brighter future. They are at work because they are a form of cheap labour and they can be exploited easily. When they grow up, they have added no skill sets. Thus lack of education is a double whammy for them. They are deprived of a precious childhood and later face an insecure future.

The EFA goals of ensuring early childhood care and primary education to the most marginalised sections, providing quality education and removing gender inequalities in education are the most important steps in the removal of child labour. These targets overlap with that of removal of child labour as these are the sections that are engaged in child labour. For instance, of the 77 million children out of school, two thirds are girls. These are girls that are engaged either in child labour or are at home taking care of siblings and performing household chores. Similarly, the majority of children engaged in child labour belong to the most marginalised sections of society. All EFA efforts targeting them would facilitate their removal from child labour. The fact that children are given early childhood care reduces their risk of being sent to work by the parents, thus acting as prevention for child labour. The EFA goals and elimination of child labour are thus two sides of the same coin.

2. What are the main obstacles to ensuring the prevention of child labour?

Some of the major obstacles in the prevention of child labour are:

- Lack of political initiation – though there are laws against child labour, national and international political will to implement these laws is lacking. Often laws are on paper with the political and bureaucratic machinery not acting on them.

- Overcoming societal mindset and stereotypes – in countries where child labour is rampant, there is an existing cultural mindset that child labour is necessary as families are economically poor and working children supplement income. It is necessary to break this myth because whatever they earn is meagre and far below the minimum wage. If an adult from the same family were to be employed in the same job, he/she would earn more. Thus the child working not only generates less money than it would have, but also perpetuates adult unemployment. Another myth is that working is beneficial for children as they learn a skill set. The only skill set that children deserve to learn is present in the classroom. Any other work is only an opportunity loss of education to the children. Thus, it is essential to break these societal stereotypes to make this world child labour-free.

- Lack of adequate resources: In some countries, though there is a will to remove child labour and provide education, a lack of resources either in terms of infrastructure or good quality teachers is a hurdle. It is on such cases that the Fast Track Initiative on education (an initiative of the World Bank, along with donor countries and organisations) works towards increasing spending on education.

3. What are the main contributions that teachers and teachers’ unions can make to prevent and eliminate child labour at local and international levels?

Teachers and teachers’ unions are uniquely placed in the whole debate on EFA and child labour elimination. Not only do they understand the inter-linkage between EFA and child labour, but they are that strong group that can influence public opinion, mobilise children’s support and affect policy makers on this critical issue.

Educate and mobilise peer support: Teachers should educate children about the status of other children who are forced to engage in exploitative forms of labour and mobilise their support. For instance, the best instance would be children raising their voice against other children being employed in their own households. There are no better advocates for children than their peers. Similarly, members of the teacher’s unions should be educated about the problem of child labour and motivated to become involved in the issue. They should be provided with training if necessary.

Muster public support: Teacher’s unions and teachers can organise public demonstrations and programmes to demand immediate action against child labour and towards the universalisation of education.

Policy intervention: Teacher’s unions can become involved in the design, implementation and monitoring of national programmes of action to EFA initiatives. They can demand a range of things - from infrastructure for schools to good quality education, from designing appropriate course curricula to better training of teachers.

Funding: On the one hand, teacher’s unions can lobby governments to increase spending on education. On the other, they can allocate funds from their union funds to support the education and rehabilitation of children released from work. Teachers in their individual capacity also can mobilise funds from schools and other educational institutions to support rehabilitation and education needs of released children.

Events: Schools can organise events around the important educational themes. For instance, they can advocate for extra efforts to ensure that girls are admitted to school and continue their studies. They can go around the neighbouring areas and not only spread word but also enrol girls in their school (especially if it is a government-run school). Children and teachers can also lobby the government to make education for all children a top priority.

Last, but not least, teachers and their unions should work in solidarity with other teachers and children’s movements around the world who are fighting to end child labour.