I for Inter-sex which has always existed, defined by United Nations as children who “ do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies” at birth. In societies where so-called hermaphroditism is something to be ashamed of, these children can be operated on at birth to make them fit social norms. Pressure to live in a binary world of either male and female can have traumatic consequences for parents and for their children. Would a more fluid approach to gender help the majority as well as minorities?
Connections rooted in the rights of children bind me to unusual women – Eglyntyne Jebb, HRH Princess Anne of Great Britain and Anisa Vrankx a Roma woman from France. These three women alert me to the limitations of policies or emotional protests on rights or wrongs which miss the underlying causes of inequality. The daily debates which polarise us are a distraction from making the connection between ourselves and others especially between North and South. Polarisation distracts us from seeing the causes of the drought, fire and exploitation and the consequences for hungry and frightened children. These women give me strength to search for hope in unlikely places.
When I went to work for Save the Children developing projects for Roma and Traveller children in 1980, my boss Ann Bagehot gave me the biography of Eglantyne Jebb to read and I discovered she had drafted the Declaration of the the Rights of the Child in 1923. The declaration states that all children need to be protected, fed, housed, and safe from exploitation in the workplace. It was adopted by the League of Nations in 1924 and in 1959 by the United Nations. For decades, Eglantyne Jebb the blue stocking feminist and activist was buried in a neglected grave in Geneva and the rights of children everywhere continued to suffer starvation and abuse.
In 1984, during the Miners’ Strike in England, we alerted our Trade Union to the connection between miners and the history of Save the Children. In 1919, Eglantine Jebb was distraught by the plight of starving children in Russia and launched her fight for children’s rights throughout the world. The British Miners’ Federation gave her £30000 to the foundation of Save the Children Fund. During the 1980’s when I worked for Save the Children, the National Union of Miners was defeated by policies which favoured a global oil and money market. Meanwhile momentum gathered on human rights and the United Nations revisited children’s rights. In 1989, the year the Berlin wall fell , the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an internationally binding agreement on the rights of children. It has since been ratified by all members of the UN except the United States of America and Somalia. Since then, Eglantyne Jebb has been resurrected and you can google her.
HRH Princess Anne as patron of Save the Children
Save the Children work across the globe is well known but in the 1980s, its work in the UK was less well known. During my fifteen years with Save the Children in the UK, the patron of HRH Princess Anne was a keen supporter of children’s rights in the UK. I am no royalist but I found more in common with HRH Princess Anne and her humanity and sense of humour than I expected, especially in our work with Travellers. When HRH Princess Anne visited a Traveller project in Gainsborough, I observed interesting interactions. We invited various local dignitaries, the local Travellers and representatives of local services to meet her to encourage support for education, health care and the development of a serviced site. When one of the local dignatories swept her flowery frock and hat into a curtsy, HRH acknowledged her politely of course but she spoke longer with the group of Travellers in the same room. I suspected they spoke about their love of horses but I found out later the conversation was about fruit picking in Sandringham.
On other occasions when HRH visited numerous projects including a family centre in Liverpool. As I escorted her down a corridor with the media in pursuit, I remembered she wasn’t always enthusiastic about media coverage so I tried to shake them off until I remembered her presence was her gift to us to profile children’s rights. It was up to me to take on the role of speaking to the press. With the help of our press officer, I took an interview where I spoke on national news about how the UK was low down on the European league table of provision for children under-five.
I first met Anisa when we invited her to join a visit to the Partnership Project in the West Midlands by HRH Princess Anne. The motto in supporting children’s rights was “to work WITH people not FOR people” so cutting out patronage and supporting individuals and families to stand up for their own rights and supporting the state services for education, health and accommodation to fulfil their obligations. Anisa as a major figure in international Roma culture and Roma rights and was recommended to us by the leader of the National Gypsy Council whose was proud of his Irish Tinker mother.
Fighting for clean water, toilets, health care and education for Roma and Traveller families in England, local councillors would tell me they should go back to where they belong. We are often so busy with battling against the “other”, we miss the hidden connections which bind us together. The role of Irish Travellers in the 1950’s and 1960’s in providing scrap metal for the Sheffield steel industry was long forgotten. Waste ground was claimed by developers. Travellers camped illegally because common ground no longer existed and they attracted the anger of everyone. The settled community know little about the cultural diversity within the Roma and Irish Traveller communities. All communities have a gap between rich and poor, Women everywhere face double struggle.
Sitting over a meal in Birmingham, the evening before meeting HRH Princess Anne, Anisa transported us from the shine of the dining table to a massive table where she sat as part of a UN delegation of Rom. Anisa could turn her hands in a certain way until we saw her dancing onwards to another place and time.
She took out a wallet of photos of her with celebrities and there she was with the then UN Director General. Another selfie and Yul Brynner would travel from Russia to join our table as part of her tribe. The English beef served up became a pot of rabbit stew on the fire in the countryside somewhere between France and Belgium. The single candle on the Birmingham table became summer fireflies dodging darkness on the edge of an encampment on the fringes of a European city.. She transformed her disabilities with stories of accidents, oppression and violent brawls. Her fight for her rights as a woman was a long one with friendship and solidarity surviving separation but it was also sometimes a lonely existence on the fringes of her community of European Rom. Later I would follow her to Spain, France and India. Long before mobile phones, she was a great one for selfies so I must trawl through my photos to find one of her and HRH Princess Anne and put it on Instagram.
Anisa gave me food for thought on the links between ancient and modern myths and how in Western Europe we adapt science, knowledge and art to the socio-economic times we live in. I treasure her esoteric thoughts with the principle of a concept of Trinity or Trushul (transformed later into a Cross) which represents infinity. She illustrates this with a triangle inside a circle. In the Trinity of male, female and child – masculine energy is about creation with a focus on body, female energy is about maintenance with a focus on the spirit and child energy is about science with a focus on intelligence – all are points within a concept of fluid identity and circular time. For Anisa, “The concept of linear time which exists in the west and in Judaeo-Christian systems” gives rise to concepts such as Good and Evil, God and the Devil pro and contra, black and white.” These beliefs develop polarisation which favours the powerseekers.
Eglyntyne Jebb, HRH Princess Anne and Anisa Vrankx a Roma woman. continue to inspire me in different ways but I am acutely aware of our failure to tackle the roots of inequalities as the centenary of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 2023. Children’s rights and human rights are in a greater than ever crisis. If the three mighty finance Marketeers, Vanguard, State Street and Blackrock examined their role in global finance according to the impact on children’s rights and climate change, a dramatic shift in the world order would follow. Unlikely but prompts a few questions. How do our everyday actions or inactions contribute to climate change? How does our consumerism fills the pockets of the rich? How can we support children and young people across the globe with actions which change all our lives?