Children as a Priority

Of all the images etched in my mind following the downing of a Malaysian Airlines plane over the Ukraine, none were as vivid and heartrending as those depicting the playthings that littered the wreckage site. It's difficult not to imagine some of the 80 children who perished on the flight clutching their stuffed animals for comfort as the plane ascended to its cruising altitude. What happened next is too horrendous to even contemplate. And yet, there lay the toys, charred yet stoic, pointed reminders of the innocence of what was lost.

Three infants were among the dead.

A half a globe away, our empathy for the plight of children is being tested in other ways. The Central American children who have endured great hardship to find their way to our borders have by all accounts fled from even greater danger. As policymakers and politicians struggle to calibrate the right response, challenging as that may be, and as religious and non-governmental organizations seek to provide some comfort and relief, I can't help but be struck by what appears to be a different kind of rhetoric in how we, as a nation, respond to the heartfelt needs of these children.

Yes, I understand the scale of the situation and how it threatens to set an untenable precedent, but does our collective empathy for children stop at the border as well? We are facing not so much an immigration issue as a humanitarian one, and our response must conform not only to the standards of a civilized democracy but also the values upon which our nation was built. As has been pointed out by others, the United States did not turn its back on the children fleeing genocide in Cambodia, civil war in Sudan or the earthquake aftermath in Haiti, among many other episodes over the years. How can we be any less American in our response today?

The fact is that children throughout the world -- particularly the developing world -- are being put at greater and greater risk. Despite progress in cutting the mortality rate for children under 5, UNICEF estimates that between 2015 and 2028, as many as 35 million more children will be at risk of dying before their fifth birthdays from preventable diseases unless the global community takes immediate action to speed up the progress that already has been made.

Reaching a solution is a matter of priority: making the health and well-being of our children a paramount concern. We understand how to prevent the most predominant causes of death -- pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria and malnutrition. It means dedicating more resources to distribute insecticide-treated mosquito nets; dispense medicines, vaccines and nutritional supplements; instruct mothers about proper breastfeeding; provide rehydration treatment for diarrhea and improve access to safe drinking water. We know the way. It's now a matter of will.

If children's health is our top priority, their safety should not be far behind. The sad reality is that children all over the world are being hurt, and often by the people who should be protecting them most. Physical child abuse is not uncommon, and as many as 60,000 children -- most of them under 4 years of age -- die each year from it. Sexual violence directed at girls, very often committed by a family member, is pervasive, as is forced child prostitution. As many as 1 million girls worldwide are exploited in this way. Forced child labor is yet another form of abuse. Children sold to traffickers are sent to workhouses, sweatshops and factories where they work as many as 18 hours a day, enduring inhuman conditions. The U.N. estimates that there are as many as 215 million child laborers around the world. Forced marriage is another problem and often results in abusive relationships as well. UNICEF estimates that some 400 million women now between 20 and 49 were married before their 18th birthdays, many without their consent.

The protection of our children on all of these fronts should not be an elusive goal, and toward that end, ChildFund International has joined with the ChildFund Alliance in a campaign to persuade government leaders and the U.N. to include the prevention of violence and exploitation of children in the next set of Millennium Development Goals beginning in 2015. Called "Free from Violence", the campaign seeks to place child safety where it belongs - as an active and important global priority.

I know that I am not alone in believing that, as adults, we have a moral obligation -- even above all others -- to provide for the health, well-being, safety and protection of our children. When violence among adults causes the death of children, when politics distorts our long-held value of compassion, when millions of children are dying from causes we can prevent, and when children are being subjected to untold forms of abuse, we must examine our priorities and recommit ourselves to ensuring that the most vulnerable among us are also the most protected.