The British government admitted in January 2023 that more than 200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children have ‘disappeared’ from government-administered accommodation, to deafening silence from politicians, the media, and the public. In contrast, 100 years ago, British philanthropist Eglantyne Jebb drafted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, a seminal document which would be adopted by the League of Nations the following year as the Geneva Declaration. This Women’s History Month, it seems only fitting to recognise the vast contribution this erudite activist has made to children’s lives everywhere.
London in 1919. Dreary in the aftermath of the First World War and the Allied blockade of Germany has continued for a year after armistice was signed. Starvation in Austria and Germany is compounded by the influenza epidemic. In Trafalgar Square, Jebb and her sister hand out emotive pamphlets, lobbying their ‘Fight the Famine’ campaign. The image on the front of a severely malnourished two-year-old is what made these pamphlets so striking, but even after the war, children remained collateral damage to political conflict.
It is unclear exactly what compelled Jebb to commit her life to the fight against adversity. It was not her upbringing: Jebb was born in 1876 into comfortable, if not privileged circumstances. A strong influence was certainly religion and the benevolence taught in the Bible. Family played an important role too, and she grew remarkably compassionate, a characteristic which helped her respond to the needs of the children in adulthood. Studying at Oxford and then Cambridge, she channelled this caring impulse through academic socioeconomic methodology and in her master’s thesis produced a comprehensive study of homelessness and poverty. She lucidly concluded that the circumstances which allowed such a large urban poor demographic were created by society as a whole. The importance of adopting collective responsibility fuelled Jebb’s charitable endeavours throughout her work.
By 1920, the success of the ‘Fight the Famine’ campaign led Jebb to establish what would become the non-government organisation Save The Children. Not only novel in its focus on children for famine relief, Save The Children was also the first ever humanitarian organisation to be founded by a woman. Her greatest legacy came in 1923 when she worked out the text of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, setting high social and economic aspirations for child welfare. This declaration incentivised legal evolutions surrounding children’s rights; and advanced and legitimised other NGOs aimed at protecting children. The United Nations conventions have since used it as a launchpad in determining international human rights guidelines.
Some biographies tend to canonise Jebb, particularly in the twentieth century. I think describing her as a saint only downplays her intelligence and dedication. I particularly admire her ability to get fruitive results from indignation. Jebb’s influence in 1923 saw Britain and other League of Nations signatories adopting a communal sense of responsibility for philanthropy. But she inspired on an individual level too: for instance, when Jebb was arrested and found guilty of conducting an unauthorised protest in 1919, even her prosecutor donated to the ‘Fight the Famine’ campaign.
2023 sees Britain strengthening its borders and shrinking its duty. The assumption is that these 200 vulnerable asylum-seeking children have been subsumed into trafficking networks or organised crime. But the story has barely made headlines, swept under the rug in apathy. With Suella Braverman anywhere near migration policy, parliament embodies this nationalist regression. Humanity owes so much to Eglantyne Jebb. Her eminent legacy teaches us that only by holding ourselves accountable can we incite an assertive and energetic demand for change. Supra-nationalism and apolitical compassion are necessary when it comes to protecting children.
“Eglantyne Jebb 1876-1928 founder of Save The Children Fund Marlborough Town Council plaque” by Spudgun67 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.