Jacqueline Hale / Dec 2019
1919 was a hard year for Europe, and especially for its children. The Great War had ripped this continent apart. Homes and livelihoods had been destroyed and loved ones lost. There was very little food. Children from Germany and Austria, starving as a result of an allied blockade which prevented food reaching them, were labelled ‘the enemy’s children’. One woman stood up against this on a cold morning in Trafalgar Square. She was arrested for protesting and hauled before the magistrate. Her name was Eglantyne Jebb and she went on to found Save the Children, as well as to write the blueprint for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child - the world’s most ratified treaty - adopted 30 years ago this year.
The founding of Save the Children is a very European story. It is about solidarity across borders, and standing up for children, wherever they come from. Over the century since, there have been many achievements won for children and benefiting the post-war generations. More children are in school than ever. The international community has halved the number of young children dying prematurely of diseases. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child sparked a revolution in how the world treats children - demanding that they be seen and heard as rights holders. Many of these advances have been won with the support of the EU, whose founding principles and values, including the belief in universal human rights, equality and the humanitarian principles, sprang from the ashes of two devastating European wars. New treaties and conventions foretold the desire to build standards and practices so that Europeans will never go to war again or be a party to violations that blighted the lives of two generations of its citizens. Many of these standards have been emulated further afield.
One hundred years after the First World War, and despite these victories, challenges remain. While children in Europe no longer grow up in the shadow of war or extreme poverty, the demand and need for European solidarity is greater than ever. Across the world 1 in 5 children grows up in a conflict zone and children bear the brunt of conflict. Eglantyne Jebb said that ‘all wars are wars against children’. When children get caught between conflict lines in places like Syria, Yemen Nigeria and Afghanistan, they need protection, access to water, food and healthcare but also access to safe education. There are also all-too-familiar issues that come back to haunt us: Millions of people in conflict zones are still denied access to humanitarian aid. And today’s ‘’enemy’s children’’ appear to be the children of foreign fighters in Syria, so-called children of ISIS. It seems our governments need reminding that children are innocent victims; that they are not the ones waging wars. Save the Children is therefore calling on European governments to repatriate all European children, together with their mothers – and it is encouraging that the European Parliament has also now spoken out urging member states to act before it’s too late.
The 21st Century also brings new challenges for children – and policy makers – to navigate. Children today – and those not yet born – must live with the consequences of climate change wrought by previous generations. Whilst the digital transition brings opportunities, children from an early age have to grapple with vast amounts of information in a context of polarised opinions, hate content, online extremism and fabrication, as well as threats to their safety and their right to privacy. Some of the major geopolitical battles over ‘’values’’ in the 21st Century will also be fought on the terrain of children’s rights. This includes the notion of ‘’family’’ and children’s rights within that societal unit, as well as girls’ reproductive health and rights, the rights of LGBT children and children who are stigmatised as different, such as migrant children, Roma Children and children with disabilities.
Making sure no children are left behind will require tireless advocacy to keep fighting for and with children. Unlike in the past, children are claiming their place at the forefront of global efforts for change, most notably through the climate strike movement. Under 18s – who do not have the vote – are finding new and creative ways to be heard to participate in decisions affecting them. They know better than adults what their needs are and are proposing solutions. Leaders who never had to grapple with cyberbullying, or pollution or climate change, should take heed of this brave new world. This century’s challenges require decision makers and NGOs alike to protect children, but also recognise that children can be agents of change. This means those in power must stop working against children – and start to listen. As a leading human rights defender, the EU should play its part.