Dame Esther Rantzen

Ashoka Fellow
Dame Esther Rantzen
United Kingdom
Fellow since 2015
This description of Dame Esther Rantzen's work was prepared when Dame Esther Rantzen was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015.


Esther pioneered ChildLine, the world’s first 24/7 child helpline for children in distress, offering free, safe and confidential support.

The New Idea

Esther’s vision is to ensure that no child suffers abuse in silence and every child, whatever their worry, has someone to turn to. When ChildLine launched in 1986 it received 50,000 attempted calls on the first night, with children reporting issues such as sexual abuse, violence and emotional distress. Today, ChildLine counsels more than 300,000 children each year, and over 4 million since its creation. Over the last thirty years, Esther’s model has inspired replication in over 150 countries allowing millions of children to reach out for help and be heard. Amongst others, Childline has informed the work of Ashoka Fellow Jeroo Billimoria, who founded Childline India in 1996. ChildLine has constantly learned from its beneficiaries and adjusted its model to how young people live and communicate: Whereas in the beginning all counselling happened over the phone, today 68% of children reach out online, liberating even more individuals to disclose their concerns.

Before Esther founded ChildLine, sexual abuse on children and violence at home were largely unspoken issues. By creating the helpline and using its data to raise awareness, Esther put an end to widespread denial and brought the topic onto the national agenda. Steadily increasing the number of individuals reached each year, ChildLine gets a unique and incomparable insight into the issues and challenges young people are facing in our society. This makes ChildLine a primary source of information on youth- and behavior trends as well as safeguarding issues. Using this data to create systemic change on a national level, ChildLine presents these perspectives to Government, and uses them to inform public campaigns and influence the judicial system.

The success of ChildLine builds on its child-centered approach, which does not impose solutions on children and guarantees confidentiality unless instructed otherwise by the child itself. After more than 30 years of existence, ChildLine is now widely identified by children and teenagers in the UK as a trusted place to turn to. Today, ChildLine operates from 12 call centers in the UK and as well as its freephone number in Britain, (0800 1111) its national and global success fostered the creation of a European harmonized number - 116111 -, available in 22 countries across the EU.

Building on the success and the 30-year history of ChildLine, Esther applied her methodology to another vulnerable part of society, the elderly, and in 2013 founded The Silver Line Helpline. The Silver Line is a free, confidential 24/7 helpline offering information, friendship and advice to older people combating loneliness and neglect. In addition, and unlike other helplines, old people can also ask to be called on a regular basis – with Silverline staff and volunteers often being the only person individuals will speak to in weeks. With the launch of The Silver Line in the UK Esther responded to the evolution of social challenges of our times. She had realized that the demographic changes we are currently experiencing come with huge opportunities and are the fruit of remarkable medical advancement, however, the stigma perceived by society means that many individuals end up living in desperate loneliness and neglect.

In its first year of operation, The Silver Line received more than 275,000 calls from old vulnerable people, more than half of whom said they had no-one else to talk to. The Silver Line is expanding across the UK and aims to give a voice to isolated old people. Already Esther is aiming to scale on an international level, sharing her experience from ChildLine with others in the field, including Ashoka Fellow Mary Nally from the Third Age Foundation, and hoping to repeat ChildLine’s success of worldwide adoption.

The Problem

It is estimated that one in five children in the UK is experiencing physical or emotional mistreatment at home, at school, or in the community. This includes sexual abuse, physical abuse, as well as bullying, online harassment or neglect. Most child abusers intimidate their victims into silence, leaving many children blaming themselves for the abuse they experience. Victims of abuse are of increased risk of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, depression, or eating disorders and carry the scars of their early experiences through the rest of their lives. Without intervention or psychological support, children suffering from abuse are more likely to experience difficulties in sustaining social ties and building a family, and have higher chances of turning to crime, drug or alcohol addiction, prostitution, or any kind of self- harm.

Over the last few decades the issues described by children have changed. Despite the persistence of physical abuse, issues have intimately evolved with the increased use of technology. Over the last 10 years, there has been a wide shift of abuse and bullying from the physical to the digital sphere, including online bullying and online sexual harassment. In an era of permanent technological interconnectedness, children are still suffering alone, and report a deep lack of understanding from parents and schools.

Before child abuse reached the public debate, it was a widely unspoken issue. Children would often not be believed and most children would endure suffering to protect their own families. The lack of public and legal concern for children’s vulnerability resulted in a lack of sensitivity from the police and social services. Interventions, if taken at all, would often be inappropriate and fail to protect victims, putting them into even more difficult or dangerous situations. With an adversarial justice system, often indifferent to children’s vulnerability, and a lack of sensitive court hearing procedures, abusers regularly remained unpunished and victims were left exposed to more crime. The lack of public awareness perpetuated a legal gap in the prevention and punishment of abuse.

The Strategy

Esther has introduced a system that allows adults to reach children suffering from abuse in a safe way. She knew that in order to gain an insight into crimes happening behind closed doors, often at home, she could only have a sustainable impact by getting the victims to ask for help, rather than hoping to identify and prosecute abusers. Esther’s entire strategy is therefore based on trust and is entirely child-focused, empowering children to decide whether or not counselors intervene. Having built this trust over 30 years, millions of children allowed Esther to learn about and recognize patterns in child suffering on a national and international scale – enabling her to strategically inform and influence policy and public services.

Trust is key to ChildLine’s strategy and the foundation to its success. Volunteer counselors, who are trained in role-play and empathy, largely deliver the services. They represent a wide range of age groups and come from all parts of society. A professional team of doctors, nurses and psychologists supports counselors themselves to guarantee highest standards of quality in the service delivered. Calls will never be recorded and no child has to give any information about their sex, age or identity. Calls do not appear on phone bills and are free of charge allowing children to call secretly. Unlike most other free phone helplines, ChildLine offers confidentiality to children unless their or someone else's life is in immediate danger. Out of 300,000 children helped by ChildLine in 2013, only about 2,000 cases were referred to the police or children’s services. The counselors’ priority is to seek to rebuild the child’s confidence and belief in their right to safety. Furthermore, they help the child identify a trusted adult who can help them to find a solution. Additionally, the counselor’s responsibility is to provide information, as children often don’t realize that what is happening to them is abuse.

ChildLine is continuously trying to adapt its support to the changes in communications practices of young people. Over the years, ChildLine shifted from uniquely providing call services to mainly relying on online support. Children can still call the helpline, but they can also anonymously share their story online, seek help on online chats and Q&As, and access information and advice sheets on various topics from abuses to bullying, pregnancy, drug use, family issues or exam stress. In 2013, two thirds of the children who contacted ChildLine’s counsellors went through the online platform. In particular, a large majority of mental health issues have been disclosed on online chats, with young people finding it easier to express their feelings online than on the phone.

Esther knew that by growing the number of individuals reached directly, she could leverage her impact on a more systemic level, informing and influencing policy, public services as well as the judicial system: Having unique access to a great amount of anonymized data from youth of all ages and all parts of society, together with the platform offered by her career in broadcasting and journalism, allows Esther to inform and influence public service providers such as schools, police and children’s services with information to improve preventative measures. Since 1998 ChildLine has trained primary school children to recognize abusive behavior and identify trusted adults. Today, since merging with ChildLine the NSPCC is aiming at training 3,000 volunteers to roll out this prevention training in more than 23,000 primary schools across the UK by 2016. Furthermore, the data is used to inform public policy and reform laws and legal definitions, impacting on the abusers side. Esther has been instrumental in introducing some major policy changes over the years, among them the Sex Offenders Act in 1997. In 1996, ChildLine published ‘Going to court: child witnesses in their own words’, which argued for improvements and changes in the court system for child witnesses. ChildLine has been instrumental in working with other organisations, such as the NSPCC, to produce a Child Witness Pack to help children called as witnesses in court. More recently, NSPCC’s campaign about ‘Flaw in the Law’ has forced the British government to make sexual messages from an adult to a child illegal in any circumstance.

In 2006, Esther merged ChildLine with the NSPCC, institutionalizing it as the national child helpline, launching the on-line counselling service and increasing capacity which remained a bottleneck in responding to all children that reach out for help. Esther is a trustee both of the NSPCC and e, The Silver Line. Already The SilverLine achieved major media coverage and gets support from the Department of Health. In the first two years The Silver Line took over 700,000 calls and has trained 2,000 volunteer telephone befrienders. Again, Esther has been instrumental in putting the issue of elderly isolation on the national agenda in the UK.

The Person

Esther was born to a liberal Jewish family in Hertfordshire in 1940. From her early childhood, she remembers the feeling of gratitude for being born in Britain where she and her family could enjoy safety and freedom. Her father worked for the BBC and the family always strongly believed in the BBC as an institution with the ambition to serve public interest. From a young age, Esther has been fascinated by the power of broadcasting and the social impact of the media. She was long aware of the influence that unraveling people’s stories in an entertaining format could have on society and at the same time was born with the qualities needed to do so: a deep love and interest for people, and a huge talent for writing and acting.

Esther studied English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford where she spent most of her time producing and appearing in cabarets, and organizing events around drama and literature. In her third year, she was interviewed by the BBC and got offered a traineeship scheme in studio management, launching the start of her long BBC career. It was at the BBC where she met her future husband, Desmond Wilcox, himself a well-known BBC figure.

In 1968, Esther was one of the first women appearing on television - a strongly male-dominated world – and felt a responsibility to challenge men-driven public life and media. In 1973 she started presenting That’s Life, which for 20 years remained the most popular consumer show on TV, reaching audiences of about 20 million viewers. Originally focused on giving consumers a platform, That’s Life built on its success to tackle wider topics from health to safety issues. They had a major impact on public perception on topics such as organ transplantation and encouraged a number of reforms on consumer’s rights. In 1984, Esther presented a special programme on drug addiction called Drugwatch. To prepare the programme, the BBC launched a survey among That’s Life’s viewers to know more about their drug use habits and managed to draw a very accurate picture of the drug use patterns in Britain. Later, the editor asked Esther if there was any other topic that she thought could be dealt with in the same way. She had recently been profoundly affected by an article she had read about a three year-old toddler found dead locked in her bedroom and answered with no hesitation: she wanted to talk about child abuse. They appointed a team of experts to design a survey targeted at viewers who had suffered abuse in their childhood. 3,000 people replied to the survey, 90% of which were women, and most of whom had never talked about it to anyone before. Esther convinced the BBC to open a temporary phone line to collect children’s experiences. Only opened for 48 hours, the line was jammed with around 100 children describing abuse, mostly sexual. Esther understood that there was a huge need to open a line for all children suffering from abuse, but although experts in child protection agreed that the line would be a unique source of help to vulnerable children, they were convinced that it was too ambitious to be achievable. Esther insisted, and pitched the idea to British Telecom, asking for a freephone line. Not only did BT’s director offer her a freephone line – 0800 1111 - but also free premises. Esther managed to secure £0.5m of funding, and Childline was launched on the 30th of October 1986, receiving more than 50,000 attempted calls on the first night.

Despite the phenomenal success of Childline, Esther didn’t dwell on its success. In 2000 Esther lost her husband Desmond and one year later wrote an article about the loneliness she experienced following his death. She received a massive amount of replies from older people experiencing isolation and distress. A few months later, she came up with the idea of setting up The Silver Line to break the stigma of loneliness and to help older people to regain self-esteem and a role in society.

Esther was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in the 2015 New Year Honours for services to children and older people through ChildLine and The Silver Line.