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Wallenberg medalist details effort to free children from forced labor

It was 1980 and Kailash Satyarthi had decided to forego a lucrative engineering career to fight for the thousands of voiceless, nameless children, as he put it, enslaved in bonded labor throughout South Asia.
(Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services)

Satyarthi had started a journal called The Struggle Shall Continue, when one day, he recounted, an old man staggered into the journal's office with a horrifying story of children working in a brick factory, never seeing the light of day. "I decided right then to stop talking about the problem and go to the victims, and get them out of there," he said. In the effort to save the children that day, he and those with him were beaten by police, but the children eventually were released with the help of the courts. He continues to risk his life every day, and, in fact, two of his associates have been murdered.

Twenty-two years later, he is the 12th recipient of the Raoul Wallenberg Medal. Satyarthi's courage and persistence have resulted in the liberation of more than 60,000 children in South Asia and beyond. President Mary Sue Coleman presented the medal and Satyarthi delivered the Wallenberg Lecture in the Chemistry Building Oct. 30.

From the journal office in Delhi, to founding the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, to leading the Global March Against Child Labor, Satyarthi said he has dedicated himself to reclaiming the lives of the world's most vulnerable population: the millions of children who are exploited and abused in a form of modern-day slavery.

"Children are sold by destitute parents into bonded labor," Satyarthi said. "The children are then often re-sold into prostitution or, more recently, as forced organ donors." He said he wants to give them a childhood, and to give them the tools through education and validation as human beings they need to overcome poverty and abuse.

The motto stamped on the Wallenberg Medal is "One Person Can Make A Difference." Wallenberg was an architecture graduate of the University in 1935. In the latter years of World War II, he saved thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazi death camps. Michael Kennedyvice provost for international affairs, director of the International Institute and professor of sociology said in his opening remarks at the lecture: "However much or little the University of Michigan helped to form a man so great as Raoul Wallenberg, it is also good to remember that he is one of us. And we make a difference by remembering what he did and by honoring Kailash Satyarthi."

For information about the global problem of child exploitation, visit, or see the book, "Speak Truth to Power," compiled by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo.


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