From the cocoa fields of Côte d’Ivoire to the carpet sheds of Uttar Pradesh, there are 168 million children around the world who toil in obscurity. Today, their plight took center stage. This morning, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2014 peace prize to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai, two individuals who have staked their lives on the belief that children – regardless of gender, geography, faith, caste or societal circumstance – belong in classrooms.
In the announcement from Oslo, committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland said: “Showing great personal courage, Kailash Satyarthi, maintaining Gandhi’s tradition, has headed various forms of protests and demonstrations, all peaceful, focusing on the grave exploitation of children for financial gain.”
In the 1980s, once on an engineering career track, Kailash Satyarthi began rescuing children from bondage. As chairman of the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, he fought against child slavery one factory at a time, one child at a time. He conducted rescue raids and liberated children who were enduring extreme violence, some brutally beaten if they ever tried to escape.
Following one such raid, Satyarthi personally returned a trafficked boy to his home village. When he went to board a train home, Satyarthi saw dozens and dozens of children destined for the looms in the hands of middlemen. Arrested for causing a disturbance at the station, Satyarthi suddenly realized that this situation required a larger solution.
“Something else had to be done. I thought, ‘Consumers have to be educated!’” Satyarthi said in a 2013 interview. This realization was for him a turning point and for the child labor movement, a profound shift in thinking and strategy. In addition to exposing the ugly truth behind beautiful rugs, Satyarthi set out to establish a certification system that would incentivize manufacturers to stop exploiting children as well as guide consumer purchases. Thus the RugMark label (now GoodWeave) was born. The first carpets with that certification were exported from India in 1995.
Today, GoodWeave works in the top consumer capitals of the world and in the key rug-producing areas across Asia, expanding most recently to Afghanistan. Their programs in weaving villages near Kabul, Mazar and soon Herat are reaching girls, many of whom resemble Malala. And in the two decades since Satyarthi’s jail cell a-ha moment, the organization has gone on to reduce the number of “carpet kids” in the region by two-thirds.
The head of GoodWeave International, Nina Smith upon hearing the news, said: “So many of us were motivated to join this struggle to protect the lives of vulnerable children because of him. This is an incredible moment for Kailash, for GoodWeave, for the children who have been forced to sacrifice their youth and their education for the benefit of business, and for the 130+ carpet importers and retailers who have taken a stand.”
GoodWeave is now preparing to finish the work that Satyarthi began and reach the 250,000 children left on looms through their “Stand with Sanju” campaign. It is inspired by the real life story of a Nepalese girl – not unlike Malala – who went from carpet loom to classroom.
As Kailash looks back on his journey, he remains optimistic that the model can be used in other industries from chocolate to mining. “At the time we launched the certification, nobody had heard the phrases, ‘corporate responsibility,’ or ‘corporate accountability.’ But we have given voice to many initiatives in the world. And some of the basic ingredients of GoodWeave now are being used as great lessons by others. In the end, we can change the world in this way.”