WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Labor today announced that Lalitha Natarajan, an activist in the fight against child labor and modern slavery in India, is the recipient of the 2023 Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor. The award was presented at the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai, India.

“Lalitha Natarajan’s tremendous courage in defending the most vulnerable in society is an inspiration for all of us,” said Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs Thea Lee. “Faced with harassment and threats, she continues to advocate for children’s rights and fights to bring offenders to justice. For her fearless commitment to the cause, she is the recipient of the 2023 Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor.”

For more than 20 years, Natarajan has championed the end of child labor and modern slavery in India as an ally for vulnerable communities. Her dedicated efforts have helped rescue children from forced labor across the state of Tamil Nadu, including those found working in stone quarries, food processing factories and handloom mills. Working with non-governmental organizations and international human rights agencies, Natarajan successfully encouraged public officials to enhance child laborer rescue and rehabilitation programming.

A practicing advocate in the High Court of Madras — Tamil Nadu’s highest court — Natarajan has long focused on women’s and children’s rights issues, fighting for individuals and families subjected to bonded labor or debt bondage for which little or no recourse to legal aid exists.

“I feel honored to receive the prestigious Iqbal Masih Award for the Elimination of Child Labor from the U.S. Department of Labor,” said Lalitha Natarajan. “I especially want to recognize the child survivors of trafficking and bonded labor that I have fought for over many years and wish them peace.” 

Established by Congress in 2009, the non-monetary award recognizes exceptional efforts by an individual, company, organization or national government to end the worst forms of child labor. It honors Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani child sold into slavery as a carpet weaver at age 4, who escaped at 10 and became an outspoken public advocate against child exploitation. He was killed a year later at age 12 in his native Pakistan.

Natarajan, the 15th recipient of the award, joins past honorees including Daphne de Guzman Culanag, Casa Esperanza and U.S. Senator Tom Harkin.

Learn more about the department’s international work.

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