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University of Iowa News Release

April 6, 2005

VanderVelde Research Takes Her To Indian Anti-Slavery Activist

University of Iowa law professor Lea VanderVelde (left) knows about many of the great anti-slavery leaders of the past as part of her research of labor laws and slavery. Recently, she worked with one of the present.

VanderVelde spent three weeks in India working with Kailash Satyarti (right), an anti-slavery activist who for 25 years has used various methods to free child slave laborers from their owners and return them to their villages and families.

"He has single-handedly put the issue of child slave labor on the international agenda," said VanderVelde. "In India, so many people think he's almost a god because so many people are grateful to him for freeing them or their children and for fighting child labor."

Thousands of children have been rescued from their work, mostly in brick kilns and in rug and textile manufacturing workshops, as a result of Satyarti's work, she said. VanderVelde is studying Satyarti's techniques and strategies, especially as they relate to using the legal system to combat slavery, as part of her wider research into labor law and slavery. VanderVelde is an expert on labor law and slave labor, particularly the use of the American court system to free slaves before the Civil War. She earned wide recognition in 2003 for her discovery in the basement of a St. Louis courthouse of hundreds of pre-war lawsuits brought by Missouri slaves seeking their freedom. She has also written books about Dred Scott, the Missouri slave who sued for his freedom in court, and his wife, Harriet.

VanderVelde said she plans to incorporate Satyarti's legal techniques in a course on the legal aspects of social change and hopes to write a book about the movement. One of Satyarti's anti-slavery innovations most recognizable to people outside India is the rug mark, a brand placed on rugs made there endorsing they were manufactured in plants that don't use child labor. He also developed the concept of Child Friendly Villages, where residents pledge not to put their children into labor and agree to send them to school, instead.

"They're so proud that they've built this school and none of their kids are used in illegal labor," said VanderVelde, who visited one such village. "It creates children's committees and women's committees to supplement the village governance and creates the infra-structure for democracy. It also helps develop the local economy. It's had a profound effect of empowering people to take control of their villages."

Satyarti and his organization also conduct interventions. Parents of enslaved children work with Satyarti to retrieve them from the isolated workplaces where they have been trafficked to perform work for employers. The intervention is often fraught with danger because their employers do not willingly part with the children working for them and often employ thugs to prevent it from happening. Its "rescue operations" are carried out by stealth, usually at dawn, in carpet workshops, garages, brickworks and stone quarries. They are dangerous as the employers are often armed. Satyarti's organization forewarns the police every time, to avoid prosecution for trespassing or stealing labor. One such intervention that went awry was captured on film and turned into the award-winning documentary about child slavery, "Ropes in Their Hands," which showed Satyarti and other rescuers getting beaten up by an employer's goons. Two activists, Dhum Das and Adarsh Kishore, were killed in earlier struggles against child servitude with the organization.

Satyarti also operates three children's camps where rescued children can spend time "learning how to be children after spending their lives as bonded labor," VanderVelde said.

VanderVelde met Satyarti last summer, when he visited Iowa at the invitation of Iowa law professor Burns Weston and the Iowa Center for Human Rights.

"I was so moved by this man and by the depth of his thinking and versatility of his strategies to eliminate a social evil that I thought this is one person I want to write about," said VanderVelde.

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STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

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