Last month I took a trip to see our Ebola response programs in Liberia, a country filled with a plethora of financial and health problems. Diseases such as Ebola have afflicted the country with one of the gravest social issues: orphaned children living day-to-day without any sort of parental guidance.
In Liberia, I met a young girl by the name of Elizabeth. At only seven years old, she was living underneath a house with her older brother, just steps away from where their mother suffered from, and ultimately surrendered to, Ebola. The villagers burned all the family's belongings and sprayed down the room, but the children would not go back inside.
Despite surviving the 21-day incubation period, Elizabeth and her brother now face the prospect of starvation and stigma, since people in their town are too scared to even look at them.
Even before this experience, West Africa had been at the forefront of my mind, along with the 2.5 million children under the age of 5 living in areas affected by Ebola. Children are at great risk -- as they are in any crisis -- both from the virus and from secondary effects, including social stigmatization, untreated illnesses such as diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria due to strained health infrastructure, and psychological stress from illness of death of relatives.
When I returned from Liberia, I couldn't help but reflect on how we can make the world better for our most precious resource: the next generation.
Today is the 60th anniversary of Universal Children's Day, a day dedicated to the moment the world made a promise "to do everything in its power to protect and promote children's rights to survive and thrive, to learn and grow, to make their voices heard and to reach their full potential." This is exactly what we believe at Save the Children, and I take this day, in particular, as a chance to reflect on what is going on in the world. I am not sure that in my 16 years with Save the Children that I have ever seen -- or personally felt -- such palpable fear as I did last week in Liberia. But this fear comes in waves, an undercurrent that runs underneath the surface of normal daily life in one of West Africa's extremely poor countries.
The epidemic's impact can be seen in the faces of the families and children I met - people who lost mothers, fathers, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters and friends. I met those who survived quarantines, but are now shunned by their communities and cut off from basic services. I see the fear in the children who were orphaned by the virus, and are living in makeshift shelters, under houses and inside storerooms. Whole families of children are living as best they can without their parents.
There are an estimated 3,700 orphans across the three hardest hit countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. In Liberia alone, the number is estimated at 2,000, with new children becoming orphans each day as the virus ravages mothers and fathers.
But while the Ebola fear during my visit was very real, there was also hope. In my last hours in Liberia, I visited a transition center for orphaned children in Montserrado, with 10 children who still could not yet be reunited with their families. While you could still see traces of fear and certainly sadness in their eyes, they lit up when asked to sing a song and proudly told me about their dreams. One little boy named Edward told me with a confident smile that he wanted to be President. Right at that moment, I believed it could come true.
Last night, Save the Children held its second annual Illumination Gala generously presented by Johnson & Johnson, where more than 500 people came together to commit to making sure every child, no matter where they are born, has the right to survive -- and to thrive. I was humbled to see that so many people care about an issue that we at Save the Children have spent nearly 100 years working on: to achieve and protect the rights of children.
So on this Universal Children's Day, let's band together for children like Elizabeth and Edward. Let's take this universal plague of Ebola and recognize that this is a world in which all children, even in the face of a tragedy like Ebola, can have dreams and a future untainted by fear.
To see how you can help children and their families living in areas affected by Ebola, please visit www.savethechildren.org/ebola-relief, and consider donating to our response.