A lecture on activism: talks the Nobel Peace Prize Kaylash Satyarthi

Together against child exploitation: Nobel Peace Prize Kailash Sathiarthy takes a selfie with a  group of students Together against child exploitation: Nobel Peace Prize Kailash Sathiarthy takes a selfie with a group of students © Clara Cotroneo

a personal reflection by Clara Cotroneo

Having the opportunity to attend a lecture taught by a Nobel Peace Prize is a rare and exceptional event in the life of many, students and not.

Between anticipation and excitement, one may ask themselves whether they will be able to fully understand the content of what is about to be said and, if so, how that will change their daily lives.

Any such worry soon dissipated as Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi starts speaking at the Vesalius College in Brussels. A clear and amiable communicator, Satyarthi knows how to engage his audiences, a very useful skill for an activist on a mission. Having been fighting for the past 30 years against child exploitation and rights to education, he is speaking here for a reason: convincing the audience to become like him, follow his movement and join the fight. A restless activist who has saved more than 80,000 children in India, Satyarthi is unable to stop his work as for him, one exploited child is one too many.

Through the story of his life, as he tells it, we are able to understand what has made him become an activist. Born into an ordinary middle-class Indu family, he had his first ‘spark’ against social injustice when school started, after meeting eyes with a young boy his age working alongside his father, a shoe repairer. Young Satyarthi could not understand why, unlike him, the boy was not going to school but instead working. When asked, the school teacher explained that the boy was working in order to help his family. Not convinced by the teacher’s answer, young Satyarthi asks the boy’s father instead, who said that he had never thought about sending his son to school because the family had been working for generations.

It is the status quo, according to Kailash, together with family traditions, that we need to challenge in order to achieve social equality. His first attempts to challenge the Indian social system, however, were not successful. When he was 15, while India celebrated the anniversary of Gandhi’s death, ‘untouchability’ was at the centre of the political debate. Pleased to hear politicians criticising the divisions within the Indian caste system, and inspired by Gandhi’s fight against social discrimination and injustice, he decided to bring high and low castes together at the dinner table. He invited local politicians and government officers to a dinner cooked by people belonging to a lower caste. Put to the test, none of the invited showed up at the event, each coming up with different excuses.

Kailash is reported to his family and asked to apologise for having offered local politicians food cooked by the untouchables. He reacted  by changing his caste name to Satyarthi, which means ‘Seeker of Truth,’ and accepted exclusion from his family as the consequence of his action. What these early episodes taught him was two important lessons: social injustice can be the result of tradition, deep-rooted family and societal values. Secondly, it is not only that some authorities cannot be trusted, but they also need to be questioned and opposed.

In addition to being directly involved in rescuing operations, for example leading raids in factories and brothels to save children who are forced to work, Satyarthi addresses the legal and policy frameworks which favour child exploitation, both in India and worldwide. In 1998, he lead a global march against child labour which ended in Geneva, where the International Labour Organization (ILO) was discussing the policies to be put in place in order to reduce child labour globally. The voice of the marchers had a huge impact on the ratification of Convention 182, with saw 150 countries signing and committing to eliminate the worst forms of child labour.

Satyarthi is an engaging and amiable speaker and his success in campaigning and raising awareness comes as no surprise. By the end of the lecture, he manages to make everyone in the room promise that they will join the movement to fight for children’s rights by inviting his audience to sign up to his latest campaign, ‘100 million for 100 million’. The aim of this campaign is to mobilise 100 million young people to stand up for 100 victimised children around the world.

What is the most important lesson that we can learn from his lecture and work? That, what matters to become activists for human rights is anger and compassion. Compassion, according to Satyarthi, is essential to feel other people’s pain as one’s own, and then to act rather than ignore it. Anger, according to him, is the energy inspiring and leading actions. Inspired by Gandhi’s movement,  the sort of anger Kailash refers to is not a negative emotion linked to violence or revenge, but rather a catalyst for peace. Without them, Kailash would have not saved over 80,000 children in India.

A conclusive example of this came when compassion moved him to help a desperate father who one night knocked on his door, begging for help, as his 15 year-old daughter was being sold to a brothel. Kailash says that he acted as if that was his own daughter; angry for the injustice they were both suffering, he decided to protect her in his house, putting his own life at risk. The police  eventually intervened, saving 36 women and children working in the same brothel.

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