Eglantyne Jebb: a true children’s champion

Today marks the birthday of the founder of Save the Children, Eglantyne Jebb. You might not recognise her name. But this remarkable Edwardian woman’s vision of a better world for children still resonates powerfully today.

In 1919, a few months after the armistice that ended the First World War, a 35-year-old woman started handing out leaflets in Trafalgar Square showing a shocking photo of two emaciated children. Above it the headline read: ‘Our Blockade has caused this – millions of children are starving to death’.

Eglantyne Jebb was arrested and tried for her protest against the impact of Britain’s post-war blockade of Germany and eastern Europe. At her trial she was found guilty, but the prosecuting counsel was so impressed with her that he offered to pay her £5 fine. It was the first donation to the charity she went on to found, Save the Children.

Within two years Save the Children led a massive relief effort for the widespread famine in Russia. At the height of the crisis in 1921, Save the Children was feeding 650,000 children a day – an impressive feat of international negotiation and logistics that saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

September 1921: at the height of the Russian famine the SS Torcello, chartered by Save the Children, set sail from London carrying 600 tons of life-saving aid.

Today

It’s a legacy that continues today. Last year Save the Children responded to 53 emergencies in 39 countries – from Syria to Afghanistan, and Somalia to Ivory Coast. Right now we’re delivering vital supplies to children and families whose lives have been torn apart by the devastating conflict in Syria. And we’ve spoken out powerfully, bringing the appalling suffering of Syria’s children to the world’s attention. In Jebb’s words, “Every war is a war against children.”

Tackling the suffering and hardship of children – wherever they are – was Jebb’s abiding passion. It remains our driving motivation today. As well as our life-saving work overseas, we have a proud history of bringing change to children in the UK: from supporting miners’ families in the 1920s; to successfully campaigning for free school milk in the 1930s and 40s; and setting up play centres in air raid shelters during the Second World War. Today, our UK programme remains a core part of our work, tackling the devastating impact on deprivation on children’s lives here at home.

Ambition

Yet Jebb’s ambitions went further, telling world leaders, “I believe we should claim certain rights for children and labour for their universal recognition.” The Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which Jebb wrote,was adopted by the League of Nations in 1924. Three decades later it inspired the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, now signed by almost every country in the world. Campaigner, humanitarian, fundraiser and human rights advocate. Eglantyne Jebb – born 137 years ago today – was years ahead of her time.

She dreamed of a world where no child should suffer extreme and life-threatening hardship. Today, there are signs that the world is making real progress towards her vision.

Last year, the number of preventable child deaths fell by 700,000 to 6.9 million – the biggest drop ever in a single year.

That wasn’t a one-off. Since 1990 the number of children dying annually has fallen by 5 million. There are still far too many children dying needlessly. But our collective efforts are having a huge impact.

Progress

I’m enormously proud that the work of Save the Children is helping bring us closer to that reality. Save the Children now works in more than 120 countries, saving children’s lives, fighting for their rights and helping them fulfil their potential. Last year we directly helped 10 million children – more than at any time in our history.

The dramatic recent progress the world has made in saving children’s lives has brought us to a pivotal moment in human history. We have the opportunity to be the first generation to ensure that no child dies from preventable diseases, and that every child gets the chance to fulfil their potential.

That’s the vision that inspired Eglantyne Jebb when she founded Save the Children almost a hundred years ago. Today, with that historic opportunity closer than ever before, her message has never been more relevant.

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