Craig Kielburger (Profile)

 

Founder of Free the Children, co-founder of Leaders Today, author, speaker, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee

Interview by Cate Malek
July, 2005

An interview with Craig Kielburger is also available.

From the time he was five years old, Iqbal Masih worked over 12 hours a day six days a week in a carpet factory. His family sold him for a small sum of money to pay for his brother's wedding. Iqbal was forced to work until he could pay off the debt, but his pay was reduced for any mistakes. He quickly realized that he had no hope of ever leaving the factory. When he ran away, he owed his owner 13,000 rupees or about $419. He earned only one rupee a day.

After escaping, Iqbal traveled around Pakistan with a human rights group speaking to other laborers, convincing children to leave their factories and adults to fight for better working conditions. He was a passionate, articulate speaker and soon Iqbal began to receive invitations to speak internationally in Sweden, the United States and other countries publicizing the issue of child labor. In 1994, he received the Reebok Human Rights Award.

However, there was a cost to his fame. As he became internationally recognized, he also began to receive death threats from powerful members of the Pakistani carpet industry. On a visit home to Pakistan, Iqbal was riding a bike with his two cousins when he was killed. No one is sure who the gunman was. [5]

Unfortunately, Iqbal's story is a common one. The International Labor Organization reports that as of June 2005, 246 million children are child laborers and 73 million of those children are under 10 years old. These children work in agriculture, in factories, as domestic servants, in hotels, restaurants and in the sex trade. There are child laborers in every country in the world, however the majority are concentrated in the Asia-Pacific region. Children are often slaves or bonded into labor and they work the most tedious dangerous jobs. Every year over 22,000 children die in work-related accidents. [6]

Craig Kielburger was 12 years old when he saw the newspaper photo that would change his life.

The photo showed Iqbal Masih, the Pakistani boy described above who had been bonded into labor at 5 years old. He had escaped from the factory where he worked knotting carpets and then traveled the world speaking against child labor. His photo was in the paper because he had been shot and killed, many said by the Pakistani carpet "mafia." The newspaper reported that Iqbal was 12 years old when he was murdered, the same age as Craig.

Craig found Iqbal's story deeply disturbing. In the next few days, he set out to find out more about child labor. He went to the library and called several human rights organizations. He was surprised by how difficult it was to find information on the issue.

A week later, Craig read an article in the local paper inviting youth organizations to set up displays for Youth Week. He decided to call the phone number in the article and was connected to Alam Rahman. Alam talked to Craig for over an hour about the problem of child labor. During the conversation, Craig mentioned the idea of starting a children's group to fight child labor. Alam encouraged him.

Craig writes in his book, Free the Children, that he was nervous when he decided to approach his classmates to see if they would participate in his group.

"I always found speaking in front of my peers a tough thing to do," he writes, "and I still had no idea how they would react." [1]

As it turned out, Craig didn't need to worry. Eighteen of his classmates volunteered to help. They decided to name their organization Free the Children. Over the next few months, they gathered as many facts as they could and began to travel to different schools in the area giving talks on child labor. They raised money anyway they could. At first they relied on huge garage sales, but soon donations began to flow in as well.

Less than a year after Craig started Free the Children, Alam, who was now a close family friend, invited him on a trip to Asia. Craig had been playing with the idea for a while. He felt like he had learned all he could about child labor from Canada and now he wanted to see the problem for himself. As Craig was only 12 years old, it was difficult for him to convince his parents to let him go. But, they did finally agree. Craig traveled for seven weeks through Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Thailand, and Nepal. While he was there, he talked to children living in the streets and working as slaves at tedious, dangerous jobs. Craig writes, "The trip had a profound effect on me, one that changed me forever. I would spread the word about the suffering of all the children I had met. I would let the world know that we, too, are part of the problem. I would not fail them." [2]

While Craig was traveling, he visited Iqbal Masih's hometown in Pakistan. What he learned there was somewhat disheartening. Feuding human rights organizations, the government and the carpet industry had mangled Iqbal's story. Craig found it very difficult to determine what was true about the widely reported story of Iqbal's life and death. It turns out that unlike the story that most newspapers reported, Iqbal was probably closer to 15 or 16 when he was killed, not 12 years old. Furthermore, the details of his murder were widely disputed. His cousins, who were with him when he was shot, changed their story about his murder several times. Craig began to feel disillusioned, but then changed his mind writing, "All that mattered was that [Iqbal's] work was still not over and that we were challenged to continue it. In his life and in his death he moved the hearts of those who heard his story. That will never be in doubt." [3]

As their organization continued to grow, the members of Free the Children consistently defied expectations. Craig writes:

During Free the Children's infant years, we had the daunting task of breaking down the barrier of belief that children were incapable of being key agents of positive social change. As young people with such a powerful message, we were often seen as idealistic in nature; dreamers who could not translate words into action. We often felt discouraged and helpless and asked ourselves, "Could young people really change the world?" However, as we continued our research we realized that we held more cards than anticipated. Who could better understand children than children themselves? This realization allowed us to press forward, and we felt unstoppable!

And indeed, Free the Children has been very successful. From the very beginning, the members of Free the Children have focused on determining the root causes of the problems they are trying to solve. They argue the only way to create social justice is to focus on fulfilling the needs and wants of the people involved in conflict. So for example, the typical response to child labor is to boycott all products made with child labor and to make the practice illegal. However, this solution doesn't address the root cause of the problem, poverty. The members of Free the Children believe that a better response would be to provide alternative sources of income to poor families, so they will not be forced to sell their children to survive. Buying a family a milk cow might provide them with enough income to send their children to school instead of to a factory.

Craig is now 21 years old and still directing Free the Children. He is also studying peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto. He hopes to go on to earn a PhD and then to become a conflict mediator, a goal he decided on while working as a Children's Ambassador in Bosnia. Free the Children now includes 100,000 youth working in over 35 countries. According to the organization's website:

Free the Children has spread to more than 35 countries and more than 1 million have participated in its projects and campaigns. It is now working on many issues concerning the protection of children's rights. Youth representatives from Free the Children have become international spokespersons for children's rights. The organization has built more than 400 primary schools providing education to over 35,000 children every day; shipped more than 200,000 school and health kits around the world; sent more than $8 million US dollars worth of medical supplies to health clinics in developing countries; created alternative sources of income for poor families; led campaigns against sweatshop and child labor; convinced governments to stiffen laws to charge tourists who sexually exploit children, and is raising funds to open educational centres in Kenya and Ecuador as well as fundraising to pay for the salaries of teachers, school gardens and school supplies for needy children. Leadership development of youth has become a major focus of Free the Children. Free the Children believes that all young people should have a voice and the opportunity to participate in issues which affect them in their communities, their country and their world. [4]

For more information, see the Free the Children website at: http://www.freethechildren.org


[1] Craig Kielburger, Kevin Major, Free the Children, (New York: Harper Collins, 1998), p. 10.

[2] Ibid. Free the Children p. 280

[3] Ibid. Free the Children, p. 222

[4] http://www.freethechildren.org/aboutus/history-ftc.htm

[5] Associated Press, "Battled Child Labor, Boy, 12, Murdered. Defied Members of 'Carpet Mafia'," The Toronto Star, April 19, 1995.

[6] "Facts on Child Labor," International Labor Organization, June 2005. Can be found at: http://www.ilo.org/public/english/bureau/inf/download/child/childday05.pdf