The Common Good
May-June 1999

A Youthful Voice for Justice

by Celeste Kennel-Shank | May-June 1999

A 15-year-old activist fights against child abuse.

As I entered pre-kindergarten in the United States, Iqbal Masih was delivered to a carpet factory owner in Pakistan. Iqbal's parents needed the 600 rupees they received from this transaction to pay for their eldest son's wedding. Iqbal was sold into slavery for the equivalent of $12.

After gaining his freedom at age 10, Iqbal devoted himself to giving those he left behind the chance he now had at an education, love, and control of his circumstances. These are essential parts of life that I know at that age I took for granted. With freedom now in his heart, Iqbal became a confident speaker, a strong voice for social justice in his homeland and the countries around it. But on April 16, 1995, Iqbal was shot while visiting his uncle near Muridke, Pakistan. His assassins, believed to be involved with the carpet-making industry, were never identified or tried for Iqbal's murder.

As Malcolm X once said, "Societies often have killed the people who helped to change those societies." Because of Iqbal Masih and others, I no longer take my freedom for granted. The thing I thank God for most is my freedom, and the thing I ask for most often is for God to protect all those who do not have it.

Craig Kielburger, then a 13-year-old living in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada, read about Iqbal's murder in The Toronto Star. I remember reading a similar story that month in a magazine. Iqbal's story inspired Kielburger in 1995 to found Free the Children, an organization devoted to ending child labor in South Asia. His book, Free the Children: A Young Man's Personal Crusade Against Child Labor, is about Kielburger's seven-week trip to South Asia, visiting the slums, sweatshops, and back alleys of Bangladesh, Thailand, India, Nepal, and Pakistan to see firsthand the ways in which children are exploited.

CRAIG, IQBAL, AND I were born in the same year, though in unimaginably different situations: Craig in a Canadian suburb, I in the heart of the U.S. capital, and Iqbal in a poor village in Pakistan. But that is simply proof that you don't have to have the same start to reach the same destination. Despite growing up in what would be considered a sheltered environment, Craig has done an immense amount to help children in South Asia. Anyone can, and everyone should, open their eyes to the world they can't see, and not just the world around them. I may have no idea how to pronounce Iqbal's name, but I felt the deepest sympathy for him when I first learned of his death in 1995, and again as I read Kielburger's book.

The book's shining stars are the chapters titled "Bangkok" and "Varanasi." "Bangkok" describes the wonders of Bangkok, Thailand, from its ornate Buddhist temples to its child prostitution district. Kielburger's words form a clear picture of an area where children as young as 7 or 8 are forced to sell their bodies. "Varanasi" tells the story of Kielburger's trip to Varanasi, India, where he helped plan a raid on a carpet factory to free the young laborers and accompanied them on the wonderful trip back to their families. The descriptions of each child's return home after years of devastating labor could definitely change someone's perspective on the issue of child labor.

Free the Children is neither pretentious nor self-glorifying. Kielburger is not a novelist, but there is no reason he should be expected to produce a deeply moving, dramatic bestseller. He does a good job of telling readers why he became and stayed involved in the child labor issue. And he makes a very good point: Child labor in South Asia must be abolished, and Westerners can't turn their heads anymore.

Celeste Kennel-Shank was a sophomore at the School Without Walls high school in Washington, D.C., and president of her school's Amnesty International chapter when this article appeared. Find out more about Free the Children at www.freethechildren.com.

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