On my first day at school, I saw a boy, my age, sitting outside the gate of my school. But he was not waiting to go to school, like me. He was mending shoes. One day, I gathered the courage to ask the boy’s father why he was working and not coming to school. He said: “I have never thought about it. We are born to work.”
Some years later, as a young man, I was compelled to answer the call my conscience had been making ever since that day. Since I started on this path, almost forty years ago, my dedicated team at Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save Childhood Movement) and I have rescued more than 87,000 children trapped in child labor across India.
But of course, this was not enough. We had to do so much more – there were hundreds of millions of children working to survive. And so, 20 years ago, we marched. From Delhi to Geneva, encompassing so many more countries all over the world, millions of us marched to put the injustice of child labor on the global agenda. On my continuing travels, I am always deeply moved to meet people who tell me they were ‘Global Marchers’, and that they remain dedicated to the fight to end child labor to this day.
This week, I am honored to see the release of ‘The Price of Free’, a feature film that documents the work my team and I have done over the past four decades. The film also tells the extraordinary stories of some of the children we have rescued, in their own words, along with the stories of their families and the terrible situation that forces them into this cycle of injustice.
From my very first moments as an activist, I knew it would not be enough to remove children from these places of violence, abuse, and slavery. How could I truly emancipate any of these children if I did not also fight for their right to safety? For their right to education? Without these, our children will never be free to enjoy their childhoods, and they will never be free to dream.
It is now almost twenty years since I was part of the bold team of actors who launched the Global Campaign for Education – and having served as its president for over a decade, I was delighted to give a small input to GCE’s recent sixth World Assembly in Nepal. I still stand with these tireless civil society activists today and push world leaders for more financing, more policy change, and more equity for the 262 million children who remain out of school today.
Just last week, the 2019 Global Education Monitoring Report was launched, and I was saddened to read of the multiple injustices some of our most marginalized and excluded children – refugees and displaced children and young people – continue to suffer. Tens of millions of children have been forcibly displaced and even conservative estimates put the number of unaccompanied minors in the hundreds of thousands. We are not making progress fast enough for the hundreds of millions of children still denied their right to quality, public, inclusive education.
It is time for governments to wake up. It is time for them to take giant leaps, not small steps, if we really want to end exclusion. In the same way that my team ensures that every child who is rescued from labor has the support they need to be fully rehabilitated and have access to education, that we support Child-Friendly Villages which ban child labor and child marriage, and where families experiencing financial difficulties are supported, the world has to tackle every aspect of multidimensional poverty. We will work to achieve this community by community, but we need governments to take bold action alongside us.
For children to be truly free, families must be able to survive and receive enough income to enable them to send their children to school, not to work. This means governments have to take the lead with social programs, and employers must provide living wages. Multinational companies must be vigilant about the use of child labor – and other human rights abuses – in their supply chains. Safe access to safe schools must be available in every community, and no child should be shut out of education due to a lack of basic infrastructure. And any child forced to flee their home must have the fundamental safety net of education – whether they are in a refugee camp or settling in a new country.
In the last 20 years, since we first took our fight against child labor and for education for all to the global level, we have made progress. The number of children forced to work has dropped by nearly 100 million. The number of children not in primary school has reduced by over one third. But there are still over 150 million working to survive, over 260 million locked out of school.
As an activist, I will continue to fight for these most excluded of children, but I also know that I have a responsibility to inspire and motivate others to join me.
This is why I am working to support young people through a new movement: the 100 Million campaign calls for a world where every young person is free, safe and educated. It is driven by young people, standing up for their rights and the rights of every child and adolescent in the world.
Earlier this month 100 Million launched its campaign to reach millions of young people with its week of global action, and the global screening of ‘The Price of Free’. Already, tens of thousands of young people in countries including Japan, New Zealand, Fiji, Chad, Germany, Ghana, Chile, the United Kingdom, Peru, Italy, and the United States have taken part, using the campaign as an opportunity to meet with their government representatives to lobby for every child to be free, safe, and educated.
The campaign is supported by Education International, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and by the Global Partnership for Education, and I am grateful for their continued and unwavering support and commitment to the voice of young people. Just last month I was delighted to read the blog post by my friends at the All Africa Students’ Union, who are so passionate about their work and have just launched a pilot program to help out-of-school children enter education.
We made The Price of Free to accelerate the end of child labor, but also to achieve our much more ambitious aim to globalize compassion for every child to be free, safe, and educated. I hope the stories of the incredible children you will see will inspire and motivate you to join us, and to act for the rights of children everywhere.
By working to end child labor, by working for every child to realize their right to free, public, quality education, together we can end these cruel injustices done to our children and restore their right to childhood.
‘The Price of Free’ is a YouTube Original, produced by Participant Media, and available to watch, for free, at http://action.100million.org/priceoffree from November 27, 2018. If you would like to host a screening of the film in a school, college, organization, government department or other public office, please visit http://action.100million.org/take-part