It is not often that I am personally asked a favor by a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

In late September 2014, I ran into a much-esteemed colleague, Kailash Satyarthi, a human rights activist from India who has been at the forefront of the global movement to end child slavery and exploitative child labor since 1980, when he founded the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement). Kailash asked me to do what I could to support a new campaign he would be launching.

On this Universal Children’s Day, Kailash and many of the world’s leading human rights organizations are launching a campaign—End Child Slavery—to target some of the world’s most vulnerable and exploited children, including the estimated 5.5 million child slaves around the world. The campaign is looking for 5.5 million signatures in five days—one for each of the estimated child slaves.

Why 5 million signatures in five days? The campaign organizers believe that many people are not aware of the extent of slavery in the world today. In fact, according to a recent report by the International Labour Organization (ILO), slave labor generates higher annual profits today than even some of the biggest legitimate global industries. It has recently been estimated that the total profit obtained from the use of forced labor in the private economy worldwide amounts to $150 billion per year.

Children carry bricks in Nepal. Credit: Navesh Chitrakar

Children carry bricks in Nepal. / Navesh Chitrakar

In addition to the enslaved children, an estimated 115 million children, aged 5-17, work in hazardous child labor—dangerous conditions in sectors as diverse as agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing, service industries, hotels, bars, restaurants and domestic service. Worldwide, the ILO estimates that some 22,000 children are killed at work every year. The numbers of those injured or made ill because of their work are not known.

The figure of 5.5 million children in forced labor is a conservative estimate, with governments identifying only a small fraction of all victims and bringing few perpetrators to justice.

Child worker in India. / Global March Against Child Labor

Child worker in India. / Global March Against Child Labor

Still, the child labor movement is a development success story. In the late 1990s, the estimated number of children in various forms of child labor was nearly 250 million. Today, that figure has dropped to 168 million. The decline has particularly benefited girls as total child labor among girls has fallen by 40 percent since 2000, compared to a drop of 25 percent for boys.

However, millions of the hardest-to-reach children still remain in slavery.

USAID is working to address this problem. Through our Counter-Trafficking in Persons programming, we have supported grassroots organizations working to prevent all forms of human trafficking in over 68 countries and regional missions during the past decade. For example, in Albania, USAID is partnering with the Government of Albania and NetHope on a new app that will target at-risk youth to prevent human trafficking.

Two weeks after I ran into Kailash, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—along with Malala Youssef—for his 34-year career as a child labor activist, during which he has freed tens of thousands of young Indians. As a grassroots activist, he has led the rescue of over 78,500 child slaves and developed a successful model for their education and rehabilitation.

I first met Kailash in 1998 when I joined the ambitious social movement he launched to eradicate child labor globally, the Global March Against Child Labor. With support from USAID and the U.S. Department of Labor, we worked together to document child labor around the world in photos and a film titled Stolen Childhoods, which shared child laborers’ stories in their own words.

In Kenya, where we filmed USAID programs with the Solidarity Center to educate former child coffee pickers, Kailash and our team also had the privilege of working with another passionate activist, Wangari Maathai. She helped our film team document the stories of street children in Kenya in 2002 and 2003. She subsequently became the first African woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

During the next five days, there is something each of us individually can do to express our concern for the children who remain victims of slavery today. The End Child Slavery campaign site provides resources and suggested actions. The U.S. Child Labor Coalition also provides important links and resources, and serves as a convening point for U.S. Government agencies and civil society organizations to share information. We can also be proud of our work at USAID, which will continue, in collaboration with other governments and stakeholders, to protect children’s rights around the world.


Bama Athreya is a Labor and Employment Rights Specialist at the USAID Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance