Kailash Satyarthi, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient renowned for his work to end child slavery, visited University of Lynchburg on Monday to share insight, receive an honorary degree, and, he hopes, inspire students to take action. “I believe deeply in the power of young people,” he said.
Unlocking that power is central to his life’s work, and an important part of his comments at Lynchburg. In fact, Satyarthi was only a child when he experienced the “first spark” that ignited his life’s mission.
On his first day of school in Delhi, India, he saw a boy sitting outside the gates of the school with his father. They were looking for shoes to shine. Once inside, 5-year-old Satyarthi asked his teacher why that child wasn’t at school. The teacher said, “Poor children have to work.”
Satyarthi said the situation made him “upset and angry.” A few days later, when he saw the father and son again, he asked the father why his son wasn’t at school. The father told him that he’d never thought about it, that he worked, his father worked, his grandfather worked. “We people are born to work,” he said.
Satyarthi said he grew up refusing the accept the conventional thinking that says injustices are a way of life. “Why are some children born to work at the cost of their childhood, their freedom, their education?” he said. “Freedom is the best gift of God. … What is happening with the gift of God? They are enslaved to make shirts and shoes for you and me. This is unacceptable.”
Satyarthi referred back to that boy shining shoes outside the school, and said, “His misery, his pain, his helplessness, gave the birth to the first Nobel laureate … for the cause of children who are enslaved.”
Jyoti Aggarwal, a Master of Education student from Delhi, remembers seeing many children in India who did not go to school but instead sold items at “tea stalls” or on the train. “There is a huge injustice in India for girls,” she said, adding that some of her relatives give a higher priority to educating their sons than daughters.
Aggarwal, who plans to be a chemistry teacher, was flooded with ideas after Satyarthi’s talk: “If all rich people could adopt at least one of those kids, we won’t have uneducated kids anymore. I thought of helping kids by giving them free education. I would love to teach those kids for free.” She said she was inspired by Satyarthi’s words, but also felt ashamed. “Why do we let child slavery happen?”
‘We have to make this world a better place’
Satyarthi eventually devoted his life to ending the exploitation of children. In 1980, he gave up a lucrative career in electrical engineering to begin activism. He helped found the Global March Against Child Labor, a literal march that developed into a coalition of organizations around the world working to end child labor. He is personally credited with rescuing 86,000 children from slavery, and he has developed a model for giving those children an education that helps them become liberators.
In 2014, he and Malala Yousafzai were co-recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. Two years later, University of Lynchburg President Dr. Kenneth R. Garren and Associate Dean Atul Gupta visited Satyarthi in India and offered him an honorary doctorate, leading to Monday’s events in Lynchburg.
Monday morning, Satyarthi met with about a dozen Bonner Leaders and Westover Honors students. He talked with them about a number of topics: from enjoying the unexpected snow that had fallen that morning to chanting with Parkland, Florida, students recently in the fight against gun violence.
Satyarthi talked about the decades he has spent fighting against child trafficking, child slavery, forced marriage, child labor, and other injustices, and how that work has been dangerous at times.
He told the students about the 100 Million campaign, a new initiative he founded that “calls for a world where all young people are free, safe and educated.” He envisions 100 million young people working to change the lives of 100 million children. He encouraged the Lynchburg students to start a chapter of the organization on campus. “One of my key lessons is we have to make this world a better place,” he said. “It’s possible through the enthusiasm and idealism of the youth.”
He also talked about how students can drive change by holding companies accountable for the abuse and exploitation of children. In the chocolate industry in Africa, he said, thousands of children work in cocoa bean production, “day in and day out” without education or clean drinking water, and living in poverty.
When he met some of these children, Satyarthi said he asked them “how they like chocolate.” He said the children looked at each other, unsure of how to answer the question. He tried to explain what chocolate was and how it tasted, but the children had never seen or tasted the final product of their labor. “So, is it not a shame?” he said.
‘This is the time to globalize compassion’
Satyarthi received the honorary doctorate of humane letters during a luncheon with local and state government leaders, as well as University of Lynchburg students, faculty, and staff. He recounted sobering statistics — 150 million children around the world are forced to work, 60 million of them have never been in school. “How can slavery and civilization coexist?” he asked.
He also expressed hope, noting that the number of children in exploitative labor situations has dropped by more than 100 million since 1999. “This means we can make change,” he said. “Courage is needed. Activism is needed. But more importantly, compassion is needed. We have globalized everything in this world. This is the time to globalize compassion.”
After the luncheon, he made a presentation to a class of Westover Honors students. Max Rivers ’21 said he was impressed with Satyarthi’s approachable, personable manner. “I learned that it was possible for anyone to create change,” Rivers said. “The ability to do so is not limited to politicians or those with wealth. It is available to those who are willing to stand up and speak out when they see something that isn’t right. Also, you don’t have to create change alone. We are stronger and more effective when we work together.”
Rivers found that message applicable to his studies at Lynchburg. “We are expected to both study for our degrees and get involved in the community,” he said. “We learn more than just the material needed for our degrees; we learn about the world and challenges that it faces. Those challenges are impressive, but not insurmountable.
“To paraphrase Mr. Satyarthi, there is no problem that is born without a solution. My studies give me the skills needed to be a part of that solution.”