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Books on Kids - Peer Defence
by Kim Mok

What's a thirteen-year-old doing when he takes on the heavy responsibility of eradicating an international problem? "Develop[ing] a social conscience"-that's how Craig Kielburger's book, Free the Children, answers this question as it chronicles the young children's rights activist's seven-week expedition into the thriving child labour industries of South Asia.

At the tender age of thirteen, Kielburger was thrust into the international spotlight by the media after he and his youth-run organization, Free the Children, captured the attention of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. His story sounds a little far-fetched, but the youth activist has demonstrated that perseverance and faith can make a difference in a world where the opinions and welfare of children are conveniently overlooked for the sake of sustaining ambiguous economic and cultural policies.

Kielburger's quest is born on April 19, 1995, when he reads the story of Iqbal Masih in the pages of The Toronto Star. A twelve-year-old Pakistani child-worker-turned-activist, Masih's eloquence on the issue of child labour had been silenced for good by the "carpet mafia". While horrified by the details of Iqbal's life, Kielburger is also inspired by the idea of children defending children, and his desire to have children involved in an adult-dominated issue that is, ironically, "all about children", gives birth to Free the Children (FTC). After countless phone calls, speeches, petitions, and fundraisers all around Ontario, Kielburger decides that travelling to Asia to see the very children for whom FTC was fighting, was "the next logical step".

And so, in December 1995, Kielburger finds himself in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Accompanying him on this trip is Alam Rahman, a fellow human rights activist. The pair travel to Bangkok, Calcutta, Delhi, Islamabad, and Bombay to convene with international human rights organizations, and to participate in demonstrations and dangerous raids to free child workers.

They personally witness the abject poverty of the slums and factories, which are populated by children who were sold by or taken from their families in order to toil for long hours with little pay or protection. Child abuse is rampant, regardless of whether the job is assembling hazardous fireworks or tying tiny knots in a carpet or prostitution. Again and again, the horror of child labour is given a name and a face through the photographs: Nagashir, a boy enslaved at seven, only to be branded on the throat when he attempts to escape; Muniannal, a girl whose job is to recycle contaminated syringes without the benefit of protective clothing, for which she is paid two cents per hour; eight-year-old Munnilal, who was promised money and training, and was given beatings as remuneration instead.

From a child's perspective, the book offers an excellent, first-hand report on how the issue of child labour is being handled in foreign countries. On the one hand, Kielburger plays the role of the cynic, believing that the heart of the issue-the children themselves-is "lost in the bickering and rivalry of adults" who are more concerned with political or personal agendas than with saving children. Free the Children is not just one long anecdote; it's about what drives a person to try to change the world. Kielburger himself grounds the fight for human rights in the simple terms of self-empowerment: "true power lies in the hands of those who can help improve the lives of others".

On the other hand, Kielburger is still an idealistic Western observer of an industry that is firmly, if cruelly, woven into the social fabric of some of these countries. At times, Kielburger seemed to sit on very lofty morals indeed, especially when he complains about "unfair" foreign traditions.

Nevertheless, his determination that the bonded-labour industries be held accountable for their exploitation of children is nothing short of admirable. His dry, functional writing, however, is not, and I wondered if it was due to too little or too much intervention on the part of co-author, Kevin Major. While Kielburger's writing may tend to the shamelessly didactic at times, it is essential to his unwavering optimism, and does not detract overall from his fundamental message that all children should be protected, educated, and loved, regardless of where they live.

For young people who want to make a difference, Kielburger's story is empowering. It should be read by those who want to view child labour from a more unusual and younger point of view. Free the Children may not be profoundly inspiring, but the sincerity of young Kielburger's relentless dedication to the children at the centre of the issue is inspiration enough. 

Kim Mok is a student at Bishop Strachan School. She is the editor of the school newspaper, The Spectrum.


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