(CNN)I’ve been told it takes a village to raise a child, but in my 24 years as a children’s rights activist, I’ve learned the opposite is true too.
Sometimes it takes a child to raise a village — or to take down an injustice.
When I was 12, I read about Iqbal Masih, a child slave who escaped the carpet factory where he’d been chained to a loom since the age of four. Iqbal led an anti-child labor crusade that made global headlines, including the one that first caught my attention.
“Battled child labor, boy, 12, murdered.”
I was stunned. I was sitting at a breakfast table in small town, Ontario, Canada, with enough food to eat, a soccer coach and a comfortable life. Meanwhile, another boy my age had been gunned down in Pakistan for speaking out about the factory owners who bought him for $16 to settle a family debt. How could two lives be so different?
I started calling anti-child labor organizations, asking how I could help. They told me a kid couldn’t make any difference, so I decided to start a movement for young people to fight child labor, and to prove them wrong. You could call it the hubris of youth, except that it stuck.
A global network
Twenty-four years later, the WE Movement is over 4 million strong, a global network of students and teachers in 16,000 schools across Canada, the US and the UK. Together, we work to move the needle on issues like child labor, local and global hunger, poverty, and more.
Internationally, WE works in countries with high rates of child trafficking and bonded labor — India, Kenya and Ethiopia among them — using what’s called our WE Villages development model. That’s a holistic and sustainable approach that uses five pillars: education, health, clean water, alternative income programming and food security to help communities lift themselves free from the cycle of poverty to help ensure that no family faces the choice Iqbal’s did: whether to sell a child into slavery.
Domestically, our greatest champions are young people. Students take action through WE Schools, our program that brings world issues into the classroom through acts of service.
In Elizabeth, New Jersey, 97 students from J. Christian Bollwage Finance Academy got together for an all-night relay walk in solidarity with children in Sierra Leone, who often drop out to take the daily job of hauling water for their families. Through the WE Walk For Water campaign, students collected $959 in pledges for clean water projects that keep kids at school instead of trekking to distant lakes and rivers.
A WE Schools club at Bird’s Hill School in East Saint Paul, Manitoba, sold $2 ballots to vote on which teacher had to kiss a goat. Students raised $414, enough to provide eight women in developing communities with goats of their own, which offer nutritious milk and small business opportunities for livestock rearing.
With sustainable income and savings, parents don’t have to pull children from school to work or leave them to take jobs outside the community. For every extra year a child spends in school, the UN estimates their future earnings increase 10 percent.
When you give a child the opportunity to learn, they always give back.
When I was young, I was told I’d have to wait until I was older to change the world. I’m sure kids today hear the same thing.
But the world needs young leaders now.
Three tips for young people taking action on child labor
1. Study up. Visit websites or hit the local library for books on child labor. You have to know the issue before you can make your actions count. Find out what causes it, who benefits from the system, and who suffers. Talk to other people about what you’ve learned.
2. Think global, act local. If the issue seems overwhelming, start small, and start at home. Find out where your clothes are made and by whom. Learn about the manufacturer’s commitment and efforts to eliminate child labor from its supply chain. Explore the effects of poverty in your own community—how they are similar or different to issues overseas. Volunteer at a local food bank or shelter.
3. Gift + issue = change. The biggest changes happen when young leaders apply their talents and passions for the causes they care about. What gets you up in the morning? Sports? Singing? Organize a charity music showcase or baseball tournament.
The WE Movement is looking for young people who want to get involved. We’ve got action campaigns and toolkits to support you in taking action for vulnerable communities around the world.
Every child deserves the freedom to get an education and pursue their dreams.
No one understands that better than another child.