Schools must be a safe haven for children, Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi on Afghanistan and COVID impact

Discussing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and their future, Satyarthi expressed his displeasure over the global response towards the sufferings of thousands
Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi | Photo: PTI
Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi | Photo: PTI

The longer schools are shut the more the likelihood that children from poor families will never return to their classrooms, says Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi while stressing that the decision to reopen has to be "medical assessment driven".

Describing schools as a haven for children, the renowned child rights activist also expressed concern over the situation in Afghanistan after the Taliban seized control over large parts of the country last month following the withdrawal of US-led forces.

"The progress we have made till now for the safety and protection of children and women in Afghanistan must not be lost.

Schools must be a safe haven for children and no child must be used in any form of combat. This is essential to basic human liberty and dignity," Satyarthi told PTI in an exclusive interview. Weighing in on the much-debated issue of whether or not schools in India should reopen now that the COVID graph seems to be dipping in several parts, Satyarthi underscored the urgency of the situation.

"This has to be a medical assessment-driven decision. But we do need to accelerate action to make schools safe for children.

The longer schools are shut, the more the likelihood of children from poor families never returning to classrooms, especially those without access to digital tools,” he said in the phone interview.

Schools, Satyarthi added, are not only centres of academic learning but also places of emotional, mental and social development. Schools give children a sense of community and allow a more meaningful relationship of trust with the teachers," he said.

Satyarthi, who was last week appointed one of the 17 global advocates for the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said the move comes at a "very critical and challenging time for children.

The 67-year-old social reformer said every child should be "free, safe and educated" and the UN community should not make any false promises to reach the goals but actually deliver.

"Our response to this generation can make or break our future world. I have accepted this appointment with the responsibility and honour of bringing their voices to the centre of global decision making." The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as Global Goals, were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030 (Agenda 2030).

The 17 SDGs are integrated they recognise that action in one area will affect outcomes in others, and that development must balance social, economic and environmental sustainability.

Discussing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and their future, Satyarthi expressed his displeasure over the global response towards the sufferings of thousands who were either orphaned or went hungry after their families lost incomes or because their schools closed.

"We have all witnessed the suffering of the world's children during this pandemic. Thousands of children have been orphaned, entire households have lost their income, and school closures have led to millions of children going hungry. Despite the gravity of the situation, we have seen a grossly unequal response to the crisis globally," he said.

He said children from the most marginalised communities suffered the most with increased vulnerabilities for child labour, trafficking and slavery. The Nobel laureate further pointed to the increase in child labourers and said it "is a wake-up call to warn us that we are setting ourselves up for the failure of the entire Agenda 2030".

"Even before the pandemic hit, the first increase in child labour in two decades was reported. This occurred during the first four years of the SDGs when an average of 10,000 children between five-11 years was pushed into child labour every day during these four years."

Satyarthi spoke at length about the creation of a Global Social Protection Fund, He referred to the success of schemes such as midday meals in India, Bolsa Familia in Brazil and direct cash transfers in several African nations that have helped lift millions out of poverty.

The fund would also help increase "global GDP because the economy grows quicker when children are learning in school rather than working to survive", he said.

"A Global Social Protection Fund can bridge the growing inequality of our world. We are demanding that as part of this, a fair share of resources be allocated for direct benefits to children. This includes school feeding programmes, access to free and quality education and healthcare, safe housing, clean drinking water and sanitation. These are the fundamentals of human dignity." The Fund, if set up, should encourage low-income countries to invest in national social protection floors.

At this time of crisis, powerful countries cannot look away from their partner countries, he said. Discussing the 'Fair Share to End Child Labour Campaign', a global partnership campaign around the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, Satyarthi said, "It is a challenge to the inherent discrimination and inequality that lies at the heart of child labour.

"We need a fair share to end child labour, a fair share of policies, financial resources and social protection for the most marginalised children. Our campaign challenges the very foundation of child labour and exploitation - the immoral and unjust division of global wealth, policies and protection." He said the campaign has grown incredibly quickly with a new country campaign forming every fortnight. It has a broad youth-led coalition behind it and has started to mobilise in spite of the pandemic.

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