SINGAPORE – The man and his wife had been tricked into slavery and forced to work without pay for 17 years at a brick kiln in India’s Punjab state. After he escaped from his captors, he asked Mr Kailash Satyarthi to tell his story in a bid to save his daughter in 1981.
The 15-year-old girl was about to be sold into prostitution by the slave master who held the man’s family captive.
Mr Satyarthi, who was then in his mid-20s and married with a toddler, had just started a Hindi magazine to report on marginalised communities.
“I was so moved. This was modern-day slavery. I felt that writing about it was not enough,” said Mr Sayarthi, who was awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for his decades-long struggle to end child trafficking and child labour in his native India and globally.
“I told the man I was going to rescue his daughter, but he didn’t believe me. He said the mafia (running the brick kiln) would kill me.”
His wife, a former journalist, sold some of her jewellery to fund the rescue operations.
But an attempt by Mr Sayarthi and his friends to talk their way into the kiln to rescue the slaves failed after armed guards beat their group, forcing them to run for their lives.
“At the end of the day, we did not manage to save anyone, but I never believe in giving up,” he told The Straits Times.
Through a legal petition, he later appealed successfully to the courts to free 36 men, women and children who had been trapped in that kiln.
This episode marked the start of 41 years and counting that Mr Sayarthi, now 68, has devoted to ending child labour and trafficking by fighting for children’s rights globally.
For “focusing attention on the grave exploitation of children for financial gain”, he was awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who had fought for girls to receive an education.
Last Tuesday, Mr Satyarthi gave the keynote address at the Nobel Prize Dialogue 2022: The Future We Want Together held at the Raffles City Convention Centre, where Nobel Prize laureates, thought leaders and youth discussed wide-ranging global issues.
The dialogue was organised by the Nobel Prize Outreach and Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore (NUS), in partnership with the Asian Medical Students’ Association Singapore.