Human rights: Marching for the children who bear the world's burden

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This week, preparations began around the world for global action to attack the evil of child labour. Domestic legislation has proved toothless, and campaigners want to shock the world into doing something more substantive. Peter Popham interviews the man who heads the global campaign.

On Thursday 20 November, the "Universal Day for the Rights of the Child", hundreds of organisations, from London to Rio and from Manila to Mexico, announced their involvement in a global march against child labour.

The march will begin in Manila on 17 January 1998. In February and March, other strands of the march will get under way in Rio and Capetown, and the different streams will converge on Geneva in early June, when the International Labour Organisation (ILO) will meet to draft a new international convention to ban the most intolerable forms of child labour.

The man who conceived the global march is Kailash Satyarthi, the founder and head of the South Asia Coalition against Child Servitude (Sacs). "The 20th century has seen enough of the globalisation of the economy and armaments," he said at the headquarters of Sacs in a Delhi suburb. "In the coming century we need to work together for the globalisation of human compassion and solidarity."

Marking the Children's Rights day, two thousand young people marched in central Delhi, neatly turned out children from private schools in pressed uniforms holding hands with poor children taking time off from slaving in sweatshops, to protest over the persistence of child labour.

It is appropriate that India should be the country where the idea of this global initiative originates, as it has far more workers under the age of 14 than any other country: 17.5 million according to government figures, but Mr Satyarthi believes the true figure is 60 million, more than the population of Great Britain. They are found in low paid labour of every description, from rag-picking, serving in cheap cafes and selling peanuts on the street, to carpet weaving and stitching trainers. Although the West's attention has been focused on items the West consumes, notoriously the footballs emblazoned with Eric Cantona's face, according to Unicef, factories turning out internationally traded commodities account for less than 5 per cent of the world's child labour force.

Much anguished debate in the West, at forums such as the international conference in Oslo last month, has centred around what can be done to tackle the problem. Blanket boycotts of countries such as India, it is generally agreed, make things worse. The imposition of a ban on child labourers at garment factories in Bangladesh led to the instant dismissal of 50,000 children, many of whom were forced to turn to ragpicking or begging to save their families from destitution: in the poorest families, the pittance earned by a working child can amount to a quarter of the family's income.

In India and other countries, domestic legislation has proved toothless: India has had a strict law against certain forms of child labour on the books since 1986, but according to Mr Satyarthi, such laws are never implemented. "The law is in the hands of labour inspectors, who are some of the most corrupt officials in India," he says.

The idea of a global march came about as a result of Mr Satyarthi's frustration in bringing change about by conventional means. "I've been working on this issue for 17 years. In India there is no dearth of constitutional guarantees, laws, ILO conventions and so on, but they are never implemented. There has never been a serious demonstration of genuine political will to do something about it. The problem exists in front of our eyes - we see children working in shops, quarries, selling balloons to motorists in central Delhi at midnight - but we ignore it.

"That's why we thought we should go to the common people and build up the momentum of awareness about the issues among them, bring home to them the importance of the right of education."

Epic marches have an honourable place in the history of India's social development. Mr Satyarthi's original inspiration was a march more than 2000 years ago that started from his home town in the state of Madhya Pradesh, through which Buddhist missionaries planted the seed of their philosophy in central Asia. Mahatma Gandhi's Salt March, in 1930, was one of the most important moments in India's struggle for freedom from Britain. And an earlier long march against child labour, which zigzagged 5,200km (3,200 miles) from the southernmost tip of India to Delhi, achieved impressive results. "It raised the profile of the issue and put huge political pressure on the government," Mr Satyarthi says. "The issue was raised 100 times in parliament, and the central government was compelled to initiate programmes on child labour. It was the first time it became a political issue."

Just as important was the impact on remote villages when the march arrived. "We suddenly turned up on their doorstep in the middle of the jungle like a miracle, and we were able to explain to them how, if their children work, it condemns families to poverty because the children's lack of education prevents them getting better jobs when they grow up."

What is terrifying in India is the rate at which the problem is growing, in tandem with the equally alarming population growth. Even the government's flawed figures indicate that the number of children working is growing at a rate of 25 per cent every 10 years. "Poor families have many children precisely in order to put them to work as young as possible, to fend off destitution," he says. The traditional belief was that numerous children were an insurance against poverty in old age. It is a measure of the desperation that consumes the world's poorest countries that it is not future comfort but present survival that motivates the poorest of the poor.

Mr Satyarthi believes that only global pressure - on governments, employers and communities - can begin to turn the tide.