The Swedish Academy continues to surprise the world with the Nobel Peace Prize. Previous winners have included organisations and people as varied as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Barack Obama, the American president who did not let the award come in the way of his government’s foreign policy. This year, it’s the unlikely conjunction of an Indian child rights activist, Bachpan Bachao Andolan founder Kailash Satyarthi, and a young Pakistani girl fighting for her right to be educated, Malala Yousafzai. They have been awarded “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people”, at a time when tensions have flared once again between the two countries on the border. The Nobel committee seemed to delight in the symbolism it has scripted, hammering away at the important point of “a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism”.
Yet, one should welcome an idea of “peace” that is not restricted to the cessation of wars and violence, but recognises the devastation of young lives by the inequalities of the societies they are born in. Seventeen-year-old Malala Yousafzai’s struggle, which has seen her take a bullet to her head and the censure of her countrymen, began from a disarmingly simple wish: here was a girl who wanted to go to school. Can the Nobel winner, however, return to Pakistan in peace?
For India, too, this prize is a reminder of the shameful condition of many of its children. Much of Satyarthi’s work has gone in rescuing young children forced to work in carpet-making units in Uttar Pradesh, some as bonded labour. But child workers are not hidden away in sweatshops. They are the cheap labour that keeps the wheels of our enterprises running. They service tea-stalls and kirana stores, middle-class homes and factories, when they should be in school, getting an education that might hoist them out of poverty. Even if India and Pakistan don’t give Oslo the happy ending it’s cheering for, it is time for both countries to stand up for children.
A less taxing time