Nobel Peace Prize winner Satyarthi has Iowa ties

University of Iowa Professor Lea VanderVelde poses with Kailash Satyarthi and her husband, UI Professor Johannes Ledolte
University of Iowa Professor Lea VanderVelde poses with Kailash Satyarthi and her husband, UI Professor Johannes Ledolter on her back porch during one of Satyarthi’s visits to Iowa City. (Contributed Photo/Lea VanderVelde)

Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi has Iowa connections.

Senator Tom Harkin and University of Iowa law professor Lea VanderVelde co-nominated the Indian child rights activist to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the body that distributes the prestigious prize.

They’ve been nominating him yearly since 2005 for his work campaigning against child slavery. He is credited with helping free nearly 80,000 child laborers.

“Kailash Satyarthi’s tireless work to free children from the worst forms of child labor and provide them an education makes him a truly deserving winner of the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Harkin after the award was announced Friday.

He first met Satyarthi in 1991, and in 1999, Harkin visited Satyarthi’s ashram in India, a center where children rescued from bondage learn skills to reintegrate into society.

When Satyarthi’s life was threatened for his work, Harkin invited him to come stay in Iowa City. That visit led to Satyarthi’s daughter Asmita enrolling in the University of Iowa from 2005 to 2008.

VanderVelde met the activist during that first visit and connected with him over his passion for combating slavery — one of her areas of research.

“He understood the dynamics of returning a person who has been enslaved to liberty and the spirit of a free person more than anyone I’d ever spoken to,” she said.

She later spent three weeks in India, visiting his ashram and learning about his organization, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, which means “Save Childhood Movement.”

Among other things, Satyarthi, 60, also led the Global March Against Child Labor and founded the Rugmark Foundation, now known as Goodweave International, which certifies that rugs were not made with child labor.

VanderVelde said when Harkin’s office asked if she would co-nominate Satyarthi, she immediately agreed. Professors and national government officials such as senators are two of the small group of people who can make Nobel Peace Prize nominations. The nominations are kept secret, so it’s possible others may have also nominated Satyarthi, who has won numerous international awards for his work.

She said writing the nomination letter the first time took her a month to complete.

“For the Nobel Peace Prize, you have to first set the criteria for which someone should win, and that criteria has to be the level of Mother Teresa,” she said. “Then you have to prove in very concrete arguments why that person meets that criteria. He does.”

Harkin said Satyarthi’s work helped inspire his own efforts to fight child labor.

“It was Kailash’s example that inspired my own work to end the worst forms of child labor around the world,” Harkin said. “I have always been honored to call Kailash a friend, if not a brother, and I am proud that his work has been recognized by the Nobel Committee.”

Satyarthi shares the award with Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, 17, who was shot in the head in 2012 by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ right to education.

They will receive the $1.1 million prize in Norway Dec. 10.

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