The Defenders

Kailash Satyarthi

“If not now, then when? If not you, then who? If we are able to answer these fundamental questions, then perhaps we can wipe away the blot of human slavery.”

At five years old, Kailash Satyarthi started school. On his first day, he was confused when he walked past a cobbler and his son, who was Kailash’s age, working near the school. That afternoon after school ended, he went to the headmaster and asked why he was in school and the cobbler’s son wasn’t. His headmaster told him that the boy’s father probably couldn’t afford to send him to school.

This answer didn’t satisfy Kailash. For several days, he stared at the cobbler and his son on the way to school. Finally, he asked the cobbler why his son didn’t go to school. The cobbler replied, “My father worked as a cobbler, I am a cobbler, and my son is also a cobbler. There is nothing new in it. We are born to work.” Kailash also didn’t like this answer. How could he be born to go to school and another boy be born to work? Even though it wasn’t a new situation, why did it have to continue? His disagreement with the idea that some children are “born to work” would become the foundation of his activism.

When Kailash was only 11 years old, he took his first step towards trying to make a difference in his community. At the time, elementary education in India was not free and many children could not afford to attend school. Kailash organized a soccer club with several of his friends and used the membership dues to pay the tuition of poor children. A few years later, he discovered that many of the poor students he’d helped had dropped out because they couldn’t afford books. At the end of the school year, he went from house to house in his neighborhood, asking for parents to donate their children’s old books so that he could give them to poor students for the next year.

As an adult, Kailash earned advanced degrees in engineering and was a college lecturer for a time. However, by 1980, he felt the time was right to leave his academic career and to begin advocating for children full time. He founded Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA),the Save Childhood Movement, with the goal of creating an India in which children are free from exploitation and receive free education.

India had laws against child labor when BBA began, but enforcement of these laws was a dangerous, daunting task. There was a lot of money to be made from child labor. Kailash decided this would not stop BBA from helping the government perform raids on shops using child labor. The BBA also directly rescued children from enslaved conditions, whenever possible. By 2015, the organization had rescued over 86,000 children from slavery and trafficking.

Additionally, Kailash advocated for children’s rights worldwide, creating organizations like GoodWeave International, a group which inspects rug weavers to make sure they don’t use child labor, and the Global Campaign for Education, which works with non-governmental agencies around the world to advocate for child and adult education. In 2014, Kailash was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with children.


When talking about people from other cultures and places, it’s important to avoid ethnocentrism, or judging other cultures based on your culture’s standards. For instance, when Europeans or Americans call people who eat insects “disgusting,” they’re being ethnocentrist. Since more people belong to cultures that eat bugs than don’t, people who don’t eat bugs could be considered the “weird” ones!

However, some cultures allow things that other cultures find morally wrong. For instance, in many countries, marriages are arranged by the families of the bride and groom. Is it ethnocentric if you don’t approve of arranged marriage? Or are you defending the rights of the bride and groom?

This is why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is so important. It provides a universal standard for all the different cultures around the world. In Article 16, it says, “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” If either the bride or the groom does not have the option to reject the arranged marriage, then it is a violation of human rights.

The UDHR also differentiates between child labor and cultural differences in worker’s ages. Article 26 declares that everyone has the right to an elementary-level education. Article 24 explains that everyone has the right of reasonable working hours and periodic holidays. Whenever child labor interferes with either of those rights, it is a violation of human rights, regardless of where in the world it happens.

While it is important to recognize the variety of human experiences, members of every culture and society are entitled to their human rights. Society is made by humans, for humans. Any society that does not protect the human rights of its members needs serious reform.


  • Get involved in the Global Campaign for Education by performing one of the Quick Actions here.
  • The Global Slavery Index provides a comprehensive overview of the state of modern slavery.
  • Talk to your principal about fundraising to buy supplies for disadvantaged students.


Discovery Education has teamed up with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Humanity United and Fund II Foundation to bring Speak Truth to Power to the classroom. Speak Truth to Power, a global initiative dedicated to sharing the stories of human rights defenders around the world, provides compelling content for a set of flexible, standards-aligned digital resources, designed to educate, engage and inspire the next generation of human rights defenders.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Mission Statement

Led by human rights activist and lawyer Kerry Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights has advocated for a more just and peaceful world since 1968. We work alongside local activists to ensure lasting positive change in governments and corporations. Whether in the United States or abroad, our programs have pursued justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educated millions of children in human rights advocacy and fostered a social good approach to business and investment.