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Championing children’s rights

This November, one of the milestones for children around the world celebrates its silver anniversary – 25 years battling for the rights of the child under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Much has been done, but much remains to be done, according to Mimi Jakobsen, Secretary-General of Denmark’s Save the Children and board member of a revamped, more efficient and stronger Save the Children International.

Mimi Jakobsen 
By Julian Isherwood

Fathers and mothers the world over celebrate that unique experience of a new world national seeing the light of day. Nothing is more precious than that moment, that first cry, that first little clenched fist that emerges after nine months of pregnancy. And nothing is more devastating than that fraction of one day that such an eagerly awaited arrival is able to see the light, before it is abruptly switched off – and for no other reason than lack of health care.

According to the latest research, more than one million children die each year across the globe on their first – and only – day of life, with half of these deaths able to be prevented by adequate health care or a trained midwife.

“As a mother myself, I can only imagine the excruciating agony of parents having to watch their new-born sink into oblivion rather than being able to live out the life that baby has been given. As citizens of the world, we cannot allow this to continue. We must work to make life more sustainable, and protect our children” says Mimi Jakobsen, former Danish minister and party leader, and for several years now secretary-general of Denmark’s Save the Children.

Hers is a job to help develop strategies to secure future generations along the lines of the UN Convention – to protect and respect their right to live, and live full and free lives.

While there are many NGOs across the globe dedicated to the cause of adult human rights, few as Save the Children devote their entire energies to serving the cause of the young. Until recently, the family of 31 national Save the Children members worked individually on their various projects around the world. While the system may have demonstrated willingness to address issues, it was hardly an efficient way of targeting problems. That has all changed.

“Previously – in Ethiopia, for example, we had seven Save the Childrens in Addis. Now it’s all one – Save the Children International,” says Jakobsen, now a member of the Board of Save the Children International and a prime mover in the change to a single global organisation.

With one office in each target country, and a single local country manager, there is more ready access to the local governments that must be involved in work throughout their own country.
“The idea is to open independent Save the Children national organisations. Not just to have an office somewhere, but that we have a national organisation able to exert pressure on its own government in that country, and who fund raise in their own country,” Jakobsen says.

Working nationally in 120 countries across the globe, the revamp of the organisational structure of Save the Children began in 2009 when the first common strategy was developed and Save the Children International was founded.

“All of the countries gave up their own individual programmes. What we have been working on since is to produce one country office with one director. It’s much more efficient. All of the various member countries provide ideas for programmes and we then work closely with the country director in the country concerned - he knows best what is needed. We have had to get used to the fact that when a strategy is developed for Ethiopia, national programmes have to fit into the strategy,” says Jakobsen.

But it would be wrong to think that national strategies solely deal with developing countries, which have a tendency to steal the international headlines.

“What most people don’t realise is that we also develop national programmes in western countries. In Denmark, for example, we have had a Stop Bullying project in which 100,000 Danish children have been through a process on how to avoid bullying. There are also problems with such things as alcohol abuse and violence in families that seriously affect children,” says Jakobsen.

“Basically children all have the same needs. The geography and conditions may be different, but basically all children need development, survival and protection,” she adds.

Nonetheless, much work is carried out in non-Western countries, and contrary to popular belief, there are many success stories.

“Due to a large EU grant, we currently have a project running in Somaliland to put 42,000 children and young people through school and give them a technical education and we are starting a project for 24,000 in Puntland. And yes, we have particular focus on girls – and in many countries that’s the most difficult to achieve. In Somaliland, however, it’s 50-50,” Jakobsen says.

“There are not many governments who don’t want their children to be educated because that’s what gives them growth,” she adds.

Most important for Jakobsen – and Save the Children in general, she says, is that the organisation does not just work for children around the world, but with them.

“I’ve just been to the Philippines to see the effects of the typhoon and we asked the children what we could help with. Their answers were clear – ‘We want our homes back and our school rebuilt’. All the things that interest children become the order book for Save the Children,” she says.

Mimi Jakobsen - Philippines

“We don’t just go out there and tell them what they want, we include them. That gives them the benefit of feeling that they are part of building something up. And the fact that they feel that they are becoming involved means that they can help avoid things getting so bad next time – a better school is built and houses are built better,” Jakobsen says.

She recounted the story of a young girl who said that next time, the children would have to remember that they have a disabled friend and they must remember to take him with them.

“The kids learn the resilience factor so they know how to handle these things – that’s really important. It’s part of how to work with children rather than just being a charity. That is something that Denmark Norway and Sweden have been active in pushing at the international level in the organisation. It seems we have succeeded,” she concludes.