What are we waiting for? Sustainable societies begin with children

In the foothills of the Himalayas, many years ago, I met a small, skinny child labourer. He asked me: “Is the world so poor that it cannot give me a toy and a book, instead of forcing me to take a gun or a tool?” Another time, a child-mother from the streets of Colombia who had been trafficked, raped and enslaved, asked me this: “I have never had a dream. Can my child have one?” A Sudanese child, kidnapped by an extremist militia and forced to kill his friends and family, once asked me: “Is this my fault?”

Slavery did not end with abolition in the 19th century. Even in modern times and developed countries, it still exists in its cruellest forms. Most recent data show that there are still 150 million child labourers in the world; that 59 million children of primary school age are out of school; and that 15 million girls under 18 are forced into marriage each year. Millions of children live with a disability that makes them more likely to be marginalized or miss out on education.

Millions of undocumented immigrants and people on the margins of society are trafficked and forced into domestic labour or the sex trade. In crisis-affected areas, slavery is much more rampant, as children are given guns instead of toys and girls are sometimes sold for less than a pack of cigarettes. Unfortunately, 37 million children living in crisis-affected countries are out of primary or lower-secondary school. I have met children toiling on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire, selling flowers in Colombia, sewing footballs in Pakistan, working in mica mines and brick kilns in India, and living unimaginable horrors in Nigeria.

All children deserve a fair and equal start in life. They deserve freedom and a childhood. They deserve comprehensive, well-rounded, quality education. These have to be viewed not just as basic rights but as a means towards a more inclusive and sustainable society.

In September 2015, more than 200 world leaders came together to adopt a 15-year plan for sustainable development. I applaud the United Nations for incorporating the need to eliminate child labour, forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking, as well as a strong emphasis on inclusive and equitable quality education, into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For the first time, clear targets have been set to end these evils, and the relationship between them and sustainable growth has been recognized. My fellow activists and I had been calling for this for many years.

Sustainable societies can only have a prosperous future when their children are safe, educated and healthy. Put simply, ending child labour, slavery, trafficking and violence against children is directly tied to achieving most of the other development goals.

Together, we have framed a will for a better future. However, what matters most is the will in the words, not the words in the will.

Addressing the United Nations SDG Summit in New York, I, on behalf of the most marginalized children, demanded action, not promises. We know progress is possible: Since the last development agenda, both the number of people living in extreme poverty and the number of primary-school-aged children out of school have been halved successfully.

Our generation can be the one that puts a complete end to the evil of child slavery. We can provide an education for every last child. We have an opportunity to embrace peace, equality, inclusivity and sustainable development by ensuring freedom for all.

But we can only do so when governments, businesses, civil society and citizens unite, and when each carries out its role wilfully and effectively. We need governments to make child-friendly policies and invest adequately in education and young people. Governments can no longer ignore the economic arguments against child labour. Increased child labour leads to higher unemployment. Today, for the 150 million children (5–14 years old) doing jobs meant for adults, there are 200 million unemployed adults. Through the right economic measures, governments should ensure decent living wages for parents so they can send their children to school.

The benefits of education are known to contribute to economic growth and poverty alleviation. Reports show that each dollar invested in quality education will return 15 times the amount in two decades. The rule of law should extend to every last child. Businesses must be more responsible and faith leaders must recognize that compassion for others is a central tenet for all faiths.

It is the responsibility of each and every one of us: We must build the world of our dreams with compassion for our fellow man and woman, regardless of ethnicity, race, religion, nationality, politics or anything else.

When we as citizens unite in holding governments, businesses and civil society accountable, anything will be possible. My colleagues and I have humbly done our part – drop by drop over the years. The result is that more than 85,000 children have been rescued from child labour and servitude and given back their childhood. It is not enough to extinguish the blaze represented by the millions of children who remain in slavery, but to those children and their families it has meant everything.

We can be and must be the generation that extinguishes that blaze once and for all.

We need to teach our bright, young, energetic and idealistic youth the value of compassion, so they don’t become disillusioned or turn to violence at a time when both they and the world seem more susceptible than ever. Devli, an eight-year-old bonded labourer whom my colleagues and I once rescued from a stone quarry, perfectly captured the urgency upon which we must act. She asked me, “Why didn’t you come earlier?”

Her question is for all of us. What are we waiting for? Each one of us has the potential to bring about change if we channel our energies and our anger at injustices in the right way. Even a small spark can dispel darkness in a room. And each of us represents a small but critical spark if we act on the problems we see rather than just witness them.

Together we can ensure that the commitments for a sustainable world are kept and that slavery is relegated to the history books where it belongs. Let that be the legacy of our lives – our gift to the world.

Kailash Satyarthi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and founder, Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation

>> Three posts published today – from Gordon Brown, Angelique Kidjo and Kailash Satyarthi represent three voices included in the new edition of UNICEF’s flagship publication The State of the World’s Children. You can read further in the digital version of the publication or in a PDF of the full report.

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