Meet Our Founder: Eglantyne Jebb

At the turn of the 20th century, a British social reformer had a bold vision to protect children and their rights. She defied gender norms to do what she believed in. 100 years later, we’re continuing her fight for boys and girls–now, in more than 120 countries. This is the story of our founder, Eglantyne Jebb.

In 1919, 35-year-old Eglantyne Jebb began handing out leaflets in Trafalgar Square after seeing horrifying newspaper photos of starving children in Europe. Although a ceasefire was declared on November 11, 1918, Allied troops continued to hold a blockade against enemy ports, restricting their access to essential supplies. As a result, famine threatened more than three million children in Europe. The newspaper images Eglantyne saw inspired her to join Fight the Famine Council, a group working to get life-saving food and medical supplies to these children. Eglantyne and her sister activity campaigned for humanitarian aid to help children no matter who they are or where they live, and to lift the post-war blockade. She defied Victorian social norms and took to Trafalgar Square to arouse public interest of the starving children in Europe. Her leaflets showed a shocking photo of two emaciated children with the headline: “Our blockade has caused this – millions of children are starving to death.” At the turn of the 20th century, women – like our founder – started to challenge preconceived notions that women had little opportunities beyond those of the home. Women started to increasingly promote gender equality by asserting themselves into the public sphere through education, work and entertainment. Eglantyne was arrested for her protest in London. She was found guilty, but the prosecutor was so impressed with her commitment to children that he offered to pay the fine himself. It was the first donation to the organization she went on to found in May 1919, Save the Children.

“The child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress.”

Within two years, Eglantyne was leading a massive relief effort for children beyond Europe. The Russian famine of 1921-22, put millions of children in dire conditions. Many were dying of starvation. Through impressive fundraising efforts, Save the Children brought a shipment of 600 tons of food and medical supplies to Russia, feeding about 650,000 people a day. Eglantyne recognized that children have unique needs, and wanted everyone around the world to take responsibility for children’s rights and well-being. She wrote the historic Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which was adopted at the 1924 League of Nations convention in Geneva. The Declaration of the Rights of the Child captured what Eglantyne believed were the human rights of every child. She told leaders, “I believe we should claim certain rights for children and labour for their universal recognition, so that everybody – not merely the small number of people who are in a position to contribute to relief funds, but everybody who in any way comes into contact with children, that is to say the vast majority of mankind – may be in a position to help forward the movement.” The declaration was then adopted in an extended form by the United Nations in 1959. It later inspired the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a landmark human rights treaty. Eglantyne never married or had children despite the social expectations of women in the early 20th century. She died in 1928, at the age of 52. A century after starting Save the Children, her fearless ambition and commitment to children’s rights continues to motivate our work today. Save the Children is now operating in more than 120 countries, including Canada. In 2017 alone, we helped more than 49 million children. Join us.

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