Craig Kielburger, founder, Free the Children
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CRAIG KIELBURGER: Child labor is that which stops a child’s growth intellectually, physically, morally, socially, and emotionally.
KRISTIN MC HUGH: This week on Common Ground, child labor through the eyes of a teen-ager.
KIELBURGER: Until you have a voice there’s no way we’re going to see massive inroads made in issues like child poverty, child labor, and child abuse. Why? Because you have no voice, no vote, and little economic clout.
KEIITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MC HUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. At first glance Craig Kielburger is a typical teenager. The 16-year-old Canadian enjoys music, sports and spending time with friends. But, Kielburger devotes nearly all of his spare time to educating others on child labor abuse. He founded the international organization “Free the Children” at age 12.
KIELBURGER: Free the Children is an international movement made up of young people ranging in age all the way from 8 until 18. And basically it’s an organization which tries to free children from abuse, exploitation; for example, children who are working as child soldiers, or right now to free children in Kosovo from the horror that they’re facing by shipping health and school supplies to them. Also, on the other hand, we work to free children even here in Canada and the United States, from the idea that they’re powerless, that they’re not old enough or smart enough or capable enough, to be involved in the decision-making process. So we try to free these children also by giving them a voice.
MC HUGH: You founded the organization at age 12?
MC HUGH: Most 12-year-olds I would think would be very interested in sports, or girls or after-school activities. I’m curious what inspired you to get involved with such a big issue.
KIELBURGER: Well, in fact I was interested in all those things and I still am. But, when I was 12 years old one day—another thing I was interested in is the comics, to put it into perspective—and so one day I was looking for the comic section in the local newspaper, the Toronto Star, and an article on the front page caught my attention, about a young Pakistanian boy named Iqbal Masih, who at the age of four was sold into bondage to work as a carpet weaver, to literally work as a slave. At the age of 10 he escaped, spoke out against child labor, against his conditions; at the age of 12 he was murdered.
And so, you ask, with most 12-year-olds being interested in sports and things along those lines and I was, but because I was also 12 years old at this point, looking at his life, when he was 12 when he was murdered for what he believe in, for speaking out for this cause, and then comparing it to my life at 12. It was being shocked by that difference that pushed me to action.
MC HUGH: I know that you did that rather quickly. I mean, describe that initial process, because certainly the group really took off very quickly.
KIELBURGER: Well, the first step was doing research. You know, knowledge equals power. To this day we still believe it. I had always thought that child labor and that slavery was something out of the past. You know, in Canada for example, we learn about the Civil War in the United States and the Underground Railroad to Canada and how slavery was abolished. And it was never taught in our schools—or at least not when I was a student—that slavery still exists today. And so when I first read this article it was a question of doubt. You know, I thought, “oh, this cannot be right.” I guess “you don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper” type thing.
And when I did further research, when I began calling up human rights groups, when I began learning that in fact there are 250 million child laborers around the world today. And at that point I went to my friends and classmates and I said, “Listen, I need your help.”
MC HUGH: How would you define child labor abuse?
KIELBURGER: Well, the definition we use is that supported by the International Labor Organization, which states “Child labor is that which stops a child’s growth intellectually, physically, morally, socially, and emotionally.” Using that definition we look not at children working, not at children helping out—you know, nothing’s wrong with that. You know, everyone does a few chores around the house occasionally, learning responsibility, learning leadership. What we’re talking about here is literally the exploitation of children. Children who are working long hours in hazardous working conditions. Children who are being exploited simply because they’re poor, simply because they’re, they’re illiterate. Children who are taking away the jobs of adults because these children are cheaper labor in comparison. Children who are not receiving an education, who are losing their childhood. Why? Because the world simply doesn’t care about their welfare. That is what we are talking about when we’re referring to child labor.
MC HUGH: Are there certain trades or industries where abuse is more prevalent?
KIELBURGER: You name it. You know, everything from the famous incidents where we look at the clothing lines and the shirts and shoes and soccer balls and toys that we use here in North America, to, for example, in the plantations. I’ve had the chance to travel to Brazil to meet with children who use massive machetes to cut the sugar cane. And this sugar cane in turn ends up on our cereals and our breakfast bowls every morning. Children who work in the sweatshops stitching the clothes. Children who work in the factories putting together the fireworks in hazardous conditions, which are in turn shipped around the world. Children who for example are being exploited in prostitution, or being exploited as domestic servants; these two industries which are often hidden away. Why? Because they don’t affect us in North America and therefore often don’t receive a lot of media attention.
Children around the world are being exploited whether it be right now as refugees in Kosovo kicked out of their homes are as the child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or even here in the United States, where children are being exploited in two ways: where they’re being exploited because of abuse and neglect; where in the United States you have one out of every four American children who live under the poverty line; where in the past 20 years 50,000 American children have been shot dead by guns. More child gun casualties in the US than all the American casualties during the entire Vietnam War. Or the 300,000 children who labor here in the United States, mostly the children of illegal immigrants.
Or, the other extreme. You know, where children aren’t given a voice and they don’t have that chance to participate, and there too, they can’t develop to their full potential. That too, in our view, is a type of pushing them down. That too, is wrong.
MC HUGH: How and where do you draw the line between religious and moral beliefs and child labor?
KIELBURGER: You mean, calling it a cultural issue?
MC HUGH: Yes.
KIELBURGER: Well, for example in the United States is it a cultural issue, with the 300,000 children who work in the plantations? Children of the illegal—mainly from Mexico—immigrants. And they work, not going to school, just moving plantation to plantation and the growing and picking. That’s certainly not a cultural issue. In Brazil if you meet with the street children there and you hear how they’re rounded up by the police—and I’ve had the chance to meet with these children and they explain how their friends have been killed or tossed in jail, or how they themselves were picked up by the police, stuck in a massive van, driven out to the rural areas, had a gun pointed to their face and said, “never come back.” That’s not a cultural issue.
Even in India I’ve marched with children as they’re going through the streets chanting, “we want an education, we want freedom, free the children.” That’s how our name was born. Free the children, from the voices of children in a march, going through the streets of Calcutta, chanting for their own rights. That’s not a cultural issue in their eyes. Right now in Kosovo that’s not a cultural issue. Anywhere in this world people try to push aside, they try to create black-and-white issues and they try to put a little gray in between and they’ll call it a cultural issue. Some could have said here in the United States that it’s a “cultural issue” with, you know, the segregation and the slavery existed. Or a “cultural issue” in South Africa with apartheid. It’s not a cultural issue. It’s a question of abuse; it’s a question of exploitation.
MC HUGH: Free the Children, as I understand it, is a group that promotes educational and leadership skills for children all across the world.
MC HUGH: Now you keep a fairly heavy travel schedule and it appears that this cause…
KIELBURGER: Oh, oh, I know where this one’s going!
MC HUGH: Do you know where this goes? Are you a child laborer?
KIELBURGER: Oh, I thought you were going to ask if I’m in school.
MC HUGH: No, are you…..
KIELBURGER: You talking about promoting education. I am in school.
MC HUGH: Are you a child laborer?
KIELBURGER: Well, it depends on, obviously not to the International Labor Organization’s definition. You know, I still go to school, I still have fun. I still get together with my friends and things like that. And you know, this is a labor of love. I’m certainly not forced to do this. And again it comes down to I’m very serious when I mean there are two extremes in this world. And you know, a large portion of the book—in fact an entire chapter—is dedicated to “what is childhood?” I get those types of questions all the time. We have to look at the extremes in this world, where in the developing nations children are fighting in wars, working the long hours, supporting the families. And obviously this is too much responsibility.
But then here in the United States and Canada it is another extreme. You know, I’m always amazed when I see drug dealers who put enough faith in children to run their drugs in the streets of Mexico City, yet parents and teachers here in Canada and the United States who don’t put that equal amount in their own faith in their own children, to reach their full potential. You know, here it’s another extreme where children don’t have a voice, where they’re not challenged, where they can’t participate. You know, when we say kids can do more than watch TV and play video games. We can. We still love to doing that too. And I still love doing that at the same time. But it’s a question of not being limited to that. It’s a question of not letting society dictate what our potential is. You know, what we can reach for. Because our generation may just surprise you.
PORTER: You’re listening to Common Ground. This week, we’re talking with Free the Children founder Craig Kielburger. Our conversation with Craig will continue in a moment.
Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. You’re listening to Common Ground, a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
KIELBURGER: Even today we believe that youth should have a voice on all issues that affect them. Even in government. You know, local, national—even the United Nations. Our youth have spoken before UN gatherings in Paris and Vienna and Geneva and New York, carrying the message on behalf of children, on behalf of youth, because who can better understand and relate with children than children themselves? Who can better lead and motivate than other youth?
MC HUGH: Are youth taken seriously, though? When they speak out on issues?
KIELBURGER: It’s difficult. Even when Free the Children first began I still remember when I was 12 years old and a lot of adults would look at me and look at the other members of FTC—Free the Children—and they would say, “oh, you cute kids.” You know, this little, little, campaign of yours, and kind of pat us on our heads and push us along our way. And we realized that adults were not taking us seriously. And we realized the key to gaining credibility was knowledge, was research. When we had the facts and statistics to back up what we were saying—you know, today we have 12- and 14-year-olds addressing Congressional committees in Washington; we recently had an 11-year-old girl speak before St. Francis Xavier University in Chicago, to a group of university professors and delegates from around the world, and she received a standing ovation. And we realized the only way to get adults to take us seriously was to do our research, was to be able to defend our views. And it’s a struggle. You know, young people have to work ten times as hard as any adult to gain credibility. And it is a battle uphill sometimes but it’s a battle that we’re willing to face.
MC HUGH: Now you mentioned in your book that you had to overcome a struggle of your own in order to become an outspoken critic of child labor, and that is your ability to speak. I mean certainly…..
KIELBURGER: Ah, yes.
MC HUGH: …you’re doing a very good job here. But at one time you were afraid to speak out publicly?
KIELBURGER: Well, in fact I had a speech impediment for the longest time. And I would slur my words and could not pronounce “r’s” in certain letters and vowels. And it was definitely, definitely a barrier to say the least, being young. And you know, my parents, for example, never thought I would give speeches or anything like that. And it just shows what young people—you know, that was something that I personally set to myself at the age of, what was it, I think 10 or 11, I wanted to overcome. That was something which, a barrier I wanted to overcome and as Free the Children started as I started giving more speeches and it seemed to flow all of a sudden. It was a barrier that seemed to break down. You know, when you do your research, when you believe in the cause you realize the cause is bigger than you. And that also takes away the nervousness. And that takes away the problems, in my case my nervousness about this speech impediment. That kind of melted away and with time it disappeared completely. As I started giving more and more speeches and carrying the message to more and more people, all because of the cause.
MC HUGH: How well received is the organization worldwide?
KIELBURGER: We now have young people involved in over 20 countries around the world. We have tens of thousands of youth that have become involved in our actions. We have 5,000 members. Now with the book out it’s incredible. In fact, it’s being translated into Chinese and it’s in French, and it’s now in German and in the United States and Canada. And it’s amazing, in fact, how many youth and teachers and adults and parents are picking that up and hearing our message. And it’s just growing like, like wildfire. Why? Because there’s nothing like Free the Children out there.
There are a lot of charities, like UNICEF and you know, World Vision, and you see all them out there helping children. But there’s nothing children for children. There’s nothing that really gives youth that chance to participate. And when we hold our conferences we don’t have adults up there speaking to youth. We have other youth speaking to their own peers, their own age group, getting them involved. Free the Children gives concrete ways for youth to gain a voice, to become true participants, to improve their communities, improve their country. And because of this, parents see it, teachers see it, and they support their children getting involved. And young people are having a great time. They see it almost as a catalyst. It really lights the spark. And in turn youth are running with it, carrying the torch into their own communities, their own areas.
MC HUGH: Do you think most people, especially American children, understand or recognize that there’s child abuse issues worldwide?
KIELBURGER: I would say—if you had asked me that question four years ago—I would say no. But in the past four years an incredible change has come about. From four years ago when I first read this article and turned to my parents, who are teachers, and said, “What’s child labor?” and they said, “Well, I don’t know.” Today, when I was in New York a couple of weeks ago, and there’s a group of students in grade one who is learning about child labor. In many states, in many cities, it’s now mandatory in the curriculum to learn about children’s rights and human rights. Volunteerism has really picked up steam lately.
You know, it’s incredible, in the past—for example, it’s not only in students that this change has come about from grade one to college, they’re now learning about social issues. Here at this teacher’s convention again issues such as human rights and children’s rights and volunteerism and children having a voice are on the agenda. At government hearings; corporations are now realizing the power and they’re catering to this youth empowerment. Some have nicknamed it a revival of the idealism of the sixties. But it’s not. It’s a new movement unto itself. It’s a new phenomenon. How we had the women’s movement; well, today it’s the children’s movement. It’s not as large yet. But it’s slowly growing. It’s raising an army who doesn’t carry weapons, don’t advocate violence. But it’s an army nonetheless. And that’s carrying that spirit of idealism to youth around the world.
MC HUGH: Is enough being done to free the children? And should governments do more?
KIELBURGER: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Not enough is being done and therefore government should do more, is what I’m saying “absolutely” to. If you look at this world, you know, 250 million children. We have to ask, where are governments’ priorities? For example, every year this world spends $800 billion on the military. Eight hundred billion. Yet all it would take is an additional $7 billion yearly to put every single child in school by the year 2010. Look at that comparison. Governments around the world frankly are not making children a priority. Even here in the United States. The US remains the only nation—besides Somalia, which has no stable government in place—the US remains the only nation not to have signed or ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. A document listing the most basic rights of children. The right to an education, the right to be protected from abuse and exploitation. The right to go to school. Every nation—Somalia has no government, they can’t ratify it—and except the United States. Even within this nation, on a domestic level, not enough is being done to help children. Every year in the US 2,000 children die at the hands of their parents because of abuse and because of neglect. This is the situation. One in four American children living in poverty.
And in Canada it’s just as bad, statistics-wise. Not only between nations, but even within nations there’s this going gap between the rich and the poor. Governments have to make children a priority. So far governments have been gauging their, their advancements on military technology, or, you know, on wealth, on size of the economies. But they’re not gauging it on the development of their most innocent, the most, the most, the most at-risk in society, the children.
MC HUGH: What’s the most important thing that you have learned through all your activism?
KIELBURGER: Probably that young people, when given the opportunity, when challenged, and when someone believes in them, are literally unstoppable. And I’m very serious in this. It’s not only with Free the Children, but also around the world you see movements like this popping up. It is an international movement now and it’s gaining, gaining so much momentum it’s never going to slow down. It’s like a ball: once it’s started it’s rolling and rolling and rolling and collecting more and more people along with it.
But most importantly I would say I’ve learned how crucial it is for parents, for teachers, to believe in youth, to challenge youth, to be willing to, to be willing to offer that support, create that infrastructure, to get involved. Because young people want to have a voice, they’re looking for the opportunities; they’re looking for that chance. All they need is a little push, a little helping hand. You know, young people aren’t passive bystanders any more. We don’t want to just close our eyes to the problems. We see it every day. Again I’m always I’m always shocked when I see in developing worlds drug dealers who put faith in children. And generals who put faith in youth to carry guns and armies. Yet parents who don’t put faith in their children, here in the United States.
MC HUGH: Do you think that your campaign will lead to a lifelong career? Or do you have other ambitions?
KIELBURGER: Oh, it can’t be a lifelong career, in fact, because it’s a youth movement. Even at 16 my role begins to change and we have other youth whom are carrying on the torch and continuing to move with it. You know, I’ll always stay involved with Free the Children to a certain extent, but when I’m older actually I hope to go into international conflict mediation, to help stop wars before they begin. In fact, actually this June I’m returning to Bosnia and doing a little bit of traveling in ex-Yugoslavia.
It’s amazing in fact the amount of destruction that war can cause. But also how easy it is to create peace when given the opportunity. For example, there’s a children’s parliament which takes place in Bosnia which I will be opening in June, takes place every year. And it brings together Serbs, Croats, Albanians, Muslims, Gypsies; all walks of life, all religious backgrounds, to work together for peace. Children, coming together to rebuild their nation and to work together for peace. Perhaps the adults of this world can learn from the children.
MC HUGH: What do you see as the future of say, five, ten, fifteen years down the road, with this issue? Do you think that there will be some big improvements in child labor laws?
KIELBURGER: Absolutely. In fact, change is already coming about. This June governments from around the world are meeting for the second hearing, drawing up a new convention on the most exploitative forms of child labor. Pakistan has recently raised the amount they’re spending on primary education. Massive inroads are being made in Brazil with a labeling system for products that are child labor free. In five years, for example, I’d like to see some of Free the Children’s long-term goals come true. One of our big campaigns is we’re seeking an empty seat on the UN Security Council to remind them of the lost voice of children in the decision-making process. Perhaps even we need to look to the idea of maybe even lowering the voting age to 16, to give youth a greater voice. They did it in Brazil. And in schools they started educating about the political parties, about their stances, about what the true importance of the vote means. And youth are now some of the highest voter turnouts. And they’re out there voting and carrying their voice and ensuring that youth do have a voice in government. Maybe we need a similar thing in the United States and in Canada.
As you see it happening more and more youth are becoming involved. And as youth raise their voices, issues relating to their peers in the United States and around the world will begin to gain more and more attention on the world leaders’ agendas. Until you have a voice there’s no way we’re going to see massive inroads made in issues like child poverty, child labor, and child abuse. Why? Because you have no voice, no vote, and little economic clout.
MC HUGH: What do you think Iqbal would think of Free the children?
KIELBURGER: Well, I hope to think he’d be happy. In many ways we are trying to carry on his struggle, carry on his message. And I think he would be, he’d be smiling down at all the different members of FTC right now. And when I think of Iqbal the most I think of one of his slogans when he had his arm up in the air and he would chant, “We are free. We are free.” You know, hopefully one day all members, all children, of this world will be able to chant that message. We are free from abuse, we are free from poverty, we are free from the cold, we are free from adults who look down at us, we are free and we now have a voice. We are free to be children, to have a childhood, to play, to laugh, to sing.
MC HUGH: If Iqbal were sitting right here, what would you say to him?
KIELBURGER: Hmm. Interesting question. I would probably ask him, in fact, a couple of questions. What does he think of Free the Children and our movement? And what suggestions would he have for change? I’d like to ask him a little bit about what kept him motivated in the hard times, when he was laboring away, when he was speaking out for children’s rights and what gave him strength until the time that he was shot dead. I’d like to, I’d like to also get to the bottom of the truth about the mystery about Iqbal. In fact, there are a lot of stories about how old he was and why he was killed and everything along these lines. And it does remain a big mystery. I’d like to ask him a little bit about his own life. And to put the, all the rumors and the stories around death and his life, put them to bed once and for all. And then finally, so we’d be able to focus on the cause and the more important thing, his message.
And as I ended the book, I’d also like to end the interview, with one of my most favorite quotes, by Margaret Meade, when she said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. For indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
MC HUGH: Craig Kielburger, founder of the organization Free the Children, criss-crosses the globe raising awareness of child labor abuses. His goal is not only to free children currently working in dangerous and sometimes illegal conditions; he also hopes to encourage other students to take up his cause. Kielburger recently had lunch with two dozen Iowa City, Iowa high school students. Monica Castillo and Maggie Spencer left the lunch with a much different perspective on the issue.
MONICA CASTILLO: We are in the United States and we go to high school and we wear like, Nike products and wear a lot of things and we never really think about what the effects are. And then after hearing him talk a lot of us have thought about what we can do to help and what we can do to change things.
MAGGIE SPENCER: I think he’s an excellent speaker and I think he gets the message of child labor and human rights, he gets it off really well. He makes clear points and I really like, he’s very captivating. He uses facts and information and his traveling experiences to really get you emotionally attached to the children in the factories. And I think that he probably inspires a lot of people to go out and do something.
CASTILLO: I believe that all children should have that equal right to be able to enjoy their childhood and to be able to go school and have education. And I want to get involved, to be able to help them have that, since I have a lot that so many people don’t have.
MC HUGH: Castillo, Spencer, and the other students in Helen Finken’s Global Portraits of Change class have already pledged to start the first Free the Children chapter in Iowa.
HELEN FINKEN: I think there’s the potential in all youth to put their highest ideals into action. And this gives them an avenue to do that.
MC HUGH: For more information on the Free the Children chapters in your area visit the organization’s web site at freethehildren.org. Freethechildren is all one word. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
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