Children are paying the price of adult wars and unrest. Here's how we can help them.

Children pay the price of adult conflicts around the world—and the cost is way too high.  

A new report from UNICEF—the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund—paints a tragic picture of our world, where war, conflict, and poverty define daily life for millions of children.

The numbers for 2018 alone are staggering—30 million children have been forced from their homes by violence and insecurity. Those who remain in war zones face horrific and ongoing violations, including being recruited to fight, being used as human shields, being raped or forced into marriage, and experiencing severe acute malnutrition.


Those numbers are hard to wrap our minds around, but 30 million children is more than the populations of America’s 10 largest cities—New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas, and San Jose—combined. And that’s just the children who have fled violence, not the ones still living in it.

“It is devastating,” Caryl Stern, CEO and President of UNICEF USA told Upworthy. “It’s been a year of conflict, and the children, because they are the most vulnerable, suffer the most.”

In some countries, more than half of children are in need of humanitarian services.

Parts of the Middle East and Africa in particular are dire places for children, though kids in Eastern Ukraine and Myanmar are also under duress due to conflict.

Stern shared with us some of the specifics:

  • Violence and bloodshed remain a daily occurrence in Afghanistan. Some 5,000 children were killed or maimed within the first three quarters of 2018—equal to all of 2017. Children there make up 89 percent of civilian casualties from explosive remnants of war.
  • In Cameroon, 93 villages have allegedly been partially or totally burned due to increasing conflict in the areas, with many children experiencing extreme levels of violence.
  • The Central African Republic has seen a dramatic resurgence in fighting, and two out of three children are in need of humanitarian assistance.
  • In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, children are being forced into fighting and suffering sexual abuse by armed groups and militias. In addition, an estimated 4.2 million children are at risk of severe acute malnutrition (SAM), meaning they’ll die without intervention.
  • In Iraq, children and families returning to their homes after heavy violence continue to be exposed to the danger of unexploded devices. Thousands of families remain displaced and now face the additional threats of freezing winter temperatures and flash floods.
  • In the Lake Chad basin, at least 1,041 schools are closed or non-functional due to violence, fear of attacks, or unrest, affecting nearly 445,000 children.
  • A recent surge in violence in the border region between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger has left 1,478 schools closed.
  • In Myanmar, the UN continues to receive reports of ongoing violations of the rights of Rohingya remaining in northern Rakhine State, which include allegations of killings, disappearances, and arbitrary arrests, in addition to barriers to health and education for children.
  • In northeast Nigeria, armed groups, including Boko Haram factions, continue to target girls, who are raped, forced to become wives of fighters, or used as ‘human bombs’. In February, the group abducted 110 girls and one boy from a technical college in Dapchi. While most of the children have since been released, five girls died and one is still being held captive as a slave.
  • In Palestine, over 50 children were killed and hundreds more injured this year, many whilst demonstrating against deteriorating living conditions in Gaza. Children in Palestine and Israel have been exposed to fear, trauma and injuries.
  • In South Sudan, more than 150 women and girls in Bentiu reported suffering horrific sexual assault. Relentless conflict and insecurity throughout the annual lean season pushed 6.1 million people into extreme hunger. Even with the advent of the rainy season, more than 43 per cent of the population remain food insecure.
  • In Syria, between January and September, the UN verified the killing of 870 children – the highest number ever in the first nine months of any year since the start of the conflict in 2011. Attacks continued throughout the year, including the killing of 30 children in the eastern village of Al Shafa in November.
  • In eastern Ukraine, more than four years of conflict destroyed and damaged hundreds of schools and forced 700,000 children to learn in fragile environments, amidst volatile fighting and the dangers posed by unexploded weapons of war.
  • In Yemen, the UN has verified 1,427 children killed or maimed in attacks, including an ‘unconscionable’ attack on a school bus in Sa’ada. Every 10 minutes in Yemen, a child dies due to preventable diseases, and 400,000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition.

"The earthquake, you can’t predict, or that disease we don’t have a cure for," says Stern. "But these are man-made emergencies, which is different than some other years . . . In the year 2019 we can do better, we must do better, we should do better."

Here’s how UNICEF is helping—and how you can too.

UNICEF helps the world's children by providing nutrition aid and water where needed, and also by ensuring access to education and creating child-friendly spaces everywhere they serve.

“We do that in the refugee camps, we do that along some of the long walks children are taking these days,” says Stern. “And we do that because we recognize that for future development, children need to be afforded the opportunity to just be a kid. They have to play, they have to sing, they have to dance, they have to have music, they have to be able to let some of what they’re bearing witness to out of them.”

Stern points out that creating child-friendly spaces helps free up parents to deal with the crisis they are facing and make a plan for what’s next. It also helps give UNICEF workers a chance to diagnose severe trauma and direct children to the services they need.

UNICEF is also “the plumber of the UN." They do all the water plans in addition to providing nutrition response and emergency aid. “UNICEF are the people who monitor the children on the ground in countries all over the world,” says Stern, “measuring arms, weighing babies, checking and trying to provide emergency response when it’s severe acute malnutrition.”  

How can those of us who live in secure nations help? The most direct way, of course, is funds. Donations are always welcome at unicefusa.org.

"In addition to dollars, which are truly desperately needed,” Stern says, “I think the American people need to depoliticize the care and feeding of children. We need to understand that children don’t vote. Children don’t make decisions about where they’re going to grow up or which country they’re going to be born, they don’t get to pick where they’re born. Children are the innocent victims of the decisions of adults.”

“There is nothing political about saving the lives of children,” Stern adds.

Stern says that a society should be and is measured by how we treat children, and by that measure, we are failing.

“As long as 15,000 children die each day from causes we already know how to prevent, we’re failing,” she says. “Children are our most precious resource and it’s not okay that 15,000 die every day. And that’s not going to change until we—everybody—take responsibility and stops referencing them as Syria’s children, or Myanmar’s children, or Latin America’s children, or American children. They are children, plain and simple. And we need to protect and ensure their futures.”

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

We know that mammals feed their young with milk from their own bodies, and we know that whales are mammals. But the logistics of how some whales make breastfeeding happen has been a bit of a mystery for scientists. Such has been the case with sperm whales.

Sperm whales are uniquely shaped, with humongous, block-shaped heads that house the largest brains in the animal world. Like other cetaceans, sperm whale babies rely on their mother's milk for sustenance in their first year or two. And also like other cetaceans, a sperm whale mama's nipple is inverted—it doesn't stick out from her body like many mammals, but rather is hidden inside a mammary slit.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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