Today’s announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize for two child rights activists – Kailash Satyarthi from India and Malala Yusafzai from Pakistan – comes at a crucial time for children striving to attain an education. Kailash Satyarthi has worked tirelessly to free children from exploitative labor, bonded labor, and even slavery, so they can go to school instead.
In India, children as young as five years old end up working. Many of them are in bonded labor, bound to their employers in exchange for a loan and unable to leave while in debt — which can be forever.
Of course it’s not just India. Around the world, 168 million children are in the workforce.
My colleagues and I have interviewed hundreds of children risking their health, education, and lives by doing backbreaking, dangerous work instead of attending school. We have interviewed children working with toxic mercury in Tanzania’s gold mines, risking nicotine poisoning from harvesting tobacco in the United States, and using cancer-inducing chemicals to tan leather in Bangladesh. The worst forms of child labor also include work involving horrific sexual abuse, such as commercial sexual exploitation of girls by soldiers in Somalia and rape of child domestic workers in Morocco.
Sometimes, children work in conditions that are akin to slavery. In Senegal, street boys are forced to beg for their master’s income, yet they go hungry themselves and are brutally beaten and mistreated when they do not fulfill their quota.
Action to address child labor is plagued by lack of political will and funding. An internationally agreed timetable to end the worst forms of child labor by 2016 is lagging. Urgent action is needed to make the fight against child labor a global priority. This should include efforts to make primary education truly free of cost and offering incentives such as free school meals. Cash transfers to the poorest of the poor have helped protect families from the financial desperation that often causes them to send their children to work rather than school. Finally, child labor laws need to be monitored and enforced.
Child labor is not an unsolvable problem. Taking action now would be the best way to honor Kailash Satyarthi’s impressive activism and this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.