I sat down to write about a different topic. Something light and good-hearted about friendship. But as I sat there organizing my thoughts, a friend texted me a news story out of Ukraine where she still has family living.
It was the story of a woman who took a stranger’s children into her own care so that he could go fight for their country. The mother of these children had been out of the country when war erupted, so another woman – herself the mother of adult children – drove the children to safety in Poland where they were reunited with their mother. This heartbreaking story can be but one example of the fierce maternal instinct to protect children — even those who aren’t our own — rising up in mothers around the world as we watch in horror as women and children hide in subway stations or attempt to get passage on packed trains leaving Ukraine.
My friend followed her first text up by sharing that her badass Ukrainian mom said that if she were there she would take up arms and fight. I do not doubt for a second that she actually would, either. We mothers tend to fight for what we believe in.
The British novelist E.M. Forster, author of Howard’s End and A Room with a View, who lived through both World Wars I and II, once wrote, “I am sure that if the mothers of the various nations could meet, there would be no more war.”
I don’t know if that was ever true, but I know it’s definitely not true now.
What I do know is that mothers and children suffer some of the most brutal effects of military conflict. In the United States, the average newborn mortality rate is 5.6 out of 1000 live births. In Yemen, where civil war has ravaged the country’s essential public services including access to basic medical care, nearly 44 out of every 1000 newborns die. In fact, every two hours, one Yemeni mother and six newborns die because of complications during pregnancy or birth.
In Angola, where civil war waged off and on again between 1975 and 2004, the rate of mortality for children under five is 71.5 per 1000. This is largely due to illnesses, conditions, and diseases like diarrhea, malnutrition, and measles contracted and prolonged by a lack of access to basic medical care resulting from forced migration. In Syria, following a decade of strife, children face the dangers of disease along with risks including abduction, forced marriage for girls, and a lack of education.
It is difficult to wrap my head around the unbearable heartache, anger, frustration, and sense of helplessness mothers trying to provide for and protect their children under conditions like this must feel.
One organization has been coming to the aid of mothers and children in conflict zones for the last 75 years. Founded following WWII to help improve conditions for children, provide access to basic services, and to help them survive and thrive. Today, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has workers on the ground in Ukraine working to protect and provide for the needs of the hundreds of thousands of families who are being displaced by the Russian incursion. In fact, UNICEF has been working in Ukraine for the last eight years to help provide clean water in the eastern region of the country following Russia’s last attack in 2014.
In Yemen, UNICEF works to ensure pregnant women get access to basic medical care and transportation to birthing facilities along with nutritional support programs for nursing mothers and infants. In Syria, UNICEF is improving access to education and psychosocial support services to help children and caregivers to recover from trauma and to restore a sense of normalcy, as well as delivering critical humanitarian assistance in hard-to-reach areas. In Angola, the organization provides essential nutrition, vaccines, medical, and hygiene supplies to address severe malnutrition and fight health emergencies including measles, polio and malaria.
Wherever children and their mothers are impacted by war, displacement due to natural disasters, humanitarian crises or health emergencies, UNICEF steps in to meet basic needs including nutrition, health, immunization, water, sanitation, and hygiene. They promote access to education and gender equality and support for social policies that give every child an equitable shot at life.
So, over the next days and weeks as more and more stories come out from Ukraine about babies born in makeshift bomb shelters, children and mothers in refugee camps or as you remember the children in crisis in 190 countries and territories and your heart breaks and you wonder how you can help…visit unicef.org and consider making a donation to their general fund or to a specific appeal for a specific country or territory.