21/01/2015 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Ending Child Slavery Must Be Prioritised In The Future Development Agenda

The most shameful commentary of today's society in one sentence is that slavery still exists and our children are the worst sufferers. You and I are born free and so are our 5.5 million child slaves whose freedom has been robbed.

In this Thursday, Dec. 25, 2014 photo, Indian tribal children react to camera at a relief camp at Tinsuti village in Sonitpur district of Indian eastern state of Assam, India. Police says the death toll from rebel violence in remote northeastern India has risen to over 70 with the recovery of more bodies from abandoned villages. Authorities have said rebels belonging to a faction of an indigenous separatist group called the National Democratic Front of Bodoland attacked tribal settlers known as Adivasi late Tuesday. Most of the Adivasis, whose ancestors migrated to Assam more than 100 years ago, work on tea plantations. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

After having met with the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon in New Delhi on January 12, I am very hopeful that the UN and the international community will prioritise the abolition of child slavery in the future development agenda. I have presented him a petition signed by around 550,000 people from all across the globe with a demand to include an explicit language on child slavery in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which will replace the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2016.

One may ask why is it necessary to demand explicit language in SDGs? Let me try to answer briefly. Millennium Development Goals had no mention on child labour. Since then I have consistently argued that without abolition of child labour, many development goals particularly universal primary education, poverty reduction and gender equality cannot be achieved. The link between elimination of child labour with ending poverty and ensuring education is mostly straightforward and tends to run in both directions. While poverty at home pushes children into work at an early age, the denial of the opportunity to go to school and develop skills, hampers employability and children end up in a vicious cycle of poverty. Also, out-of-school children are at risk of exploitation and are most likely to be engaged into child labour at the cost of their education, health, freedom and overall well-being and development.

Since the turn of the century we have made progress with 78 million fewer child labourers, as reported by the International Labour Organization (ILO). This is absolutely a significant achievement but not a total victory, yet. Figures indicate that a staggering number of children continue to be in child labour--currently at 168 million. As many as 85 million children out of these are in the worst and hazardous forms of child labour. What is more worrisome than these large numbers is that the pace of reduction in child labour has slowed down, while it has remained virtually unchanged in the case of child slavery. 5.5 million children are trapped in various manifestations of slavery such as forced labour, trafficking and bonded labour. They remain practically invisible or hidden. Child slaves are toiling in farms, fields, mines and factories. They are increasingly being employed as domestic helps by the growing middle class. Girls are being pushed and sold for prostitution.

The most shameful commentary of today's society in one sentence is that slavery still exists and our children are the worst sufferers. You and I are born free and so are our 5.5 million child slaves whose freedom has been robbed. Their innocence is exploited and future jeopardised. There cannot be any excuse for this most heinous crime against humanity. There must not be any excuse in ensuring their freedom. Total victory will be achieved only and only when we abolish child slavery, when we create a future where all children are free to be children. Therefore business-as-usual approach won't work. Child slavey must be addressed as a rights, development, crime and humanitarian issue simultaneously. International community and governments must make it a priority in their development agendas, so more investment could be made in prevention, remediation and rehabilitation. Although the good news is that child labour, education and violence against children find a good place in the draft of the SDGs. These should be retained. Additionally ending child slavery should also be included.

Addressing the serious issue of child slavery is a matter of urgency and priority, we have to act now! My organisation, Global March Against Child Labour together with Anti-Slavery International, Education International, International Trade Union Confederation, KidsRights Foundation and Thomson Reuters Foundation since last year have been running a global campaign with the single focused aim to end child slavery. Many organisations and individuals have joined the End Child Slavery Week campaign. European Commission and eminent persons such as Gordon Brown, UN Special Envoy for Global Education and Brazilian former President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have lent support to the cause of child slavery. Launched officially in November, diverse activities have been organised across the globe to raise awareness on child slavery, engage stakeholders especially policy makers, and to run a petition drive to influence the SDGs. While a youth rally and solidarity walk was organised in the United Kingdom; seminars, speeches and conferences were organised in Chile, Panama, Peru, Uganda and other Latin American and African countries. In Asian countries, candle light vigils, cycle rallies, sports day for children, writing and drawing competitions, to name a few, sensitised and mobilised many around the concern of child slavery. In Australia, teachers conducted awareness sessions in classrooms on child labour and child slavery. All these actions and efforts and many more including running the petition online has garnered the support of 550,000 people and the number is still counting.

The international community must take notice of the demands of these people and take concrete steps to end child slavery--a grave violation of children's rights.