08/01/2011 08:22 am ET Updated Oct 01, 2011

Famine in Africa: Why Women and Children Need the Most Help

Last week ⎯ on the dirt, beneath thorn bushes just outside of a refugee camp near the Somalia/Ethiopia border ⎯ a young mother gave birth to a daughter she quickly named "Lucky." Considering the woman had just walked, pregnant, for twenty days beneath a scorching sun, the baby's name might not seem like an obvious choice. But the young woman had been desperately stumbling toward a place of safety, a place that would ensure she and her unborn child survived when so many others were dying. And they were, indeed, lucky.

Had she given birth the day before, the new mom would have been forced to deliver in the desert, far from any possible assistance. Instead, having nearly made it to the refugee camp, she delivered her baby with the help of a UNICEF-trained birth attendant who had come, almost magically, upon her. The birth attendant quickly ran to get her kit (scissors, razor, disinfectant) and returned to help tiny Lucky safely into this world.

She had a fortunate beginning, but Lucky is already facing additional trials. Because today, as we plan our weekend barbeques and select bathing suits for our kids to wear to the beach, millions of people ⎯ most of them women and children ⎯ are fighting to stay alive in the Horn of Africa. Severe drought, famine, ongoing bloody conflict in parts of Somalia, and skyrocketing food prices have conspired to create the world's worst humanitarian disaster. This is about more than just food ⎯ it is a crisis of child survival. It is a crisis of life and death.

In emergencies like this, children and women are always the most vulnerable. Young bodies are particularly susceptible to malnutrition, and diseases easily prey upon children's weakened immune systems. Pregnant and breastfeeding women often can't get the nutrition and health care they need, and women in general shoulder an especially high burden in the care of their families ⎯ sometimes at the expense of their own wellbeing.

Right now, more than 2 million young children in the Horn of Africa's Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Djibouti are acutely malnourished. Half a million children are at imminent risk of death and require immediate lifesaving attention to survive. That's half a million children whose mothers ⎯ famished themselves ⎯ are now watching their children suffer, wither, and beg for food that is not there.

Each week, thousands of families are crossing the border from Somalia to neighboring countries where UNICEF and other humanitarian agencies are providing therapeutic food in refugee camps and rapidly setting up additional emergency feeding centers. At some of the camps, half of the children arriving each day are malnourished.

But at least they've made it. I can't bear to think of the little ones who are dying as they walk ⎯ too weak to survive the trek. We've heard too many stories of mothers forced to bury their children en route. Or ⎯ most terrible of all ⎯ mothers who must face the unthinkable dilemma: With the little I have, which child do I feed and which do I allow to die?

The need in the Horn of Africa is tremendous. But it is not hopeless. Humanitarian organizations are rising to this challenge in extraordinary ways. We have the expertise and the tools ⎯ what's needed now is additional funding. We can't allow those like Lucky and her mother to make it to safety, only to see resources slowly run out. Because we're providing more than just food ⎯ child survival also demands clean drinking water, sanitation, critical vaccinations against deadly diseases, and basic health care. It demands the essentials we make sure our own children have every day.

Tonight, in honor of a baby born in the dirt outside of a refugee camp ⎯ and all the children and mothers fighting for survival in the Horn of Africa ⎯ I'll tuck my children into bed and whisper the word: "Lucky."

You can help by donating to UNICEF, calling toll free: 1-800-4UNICEF (1-800-486-4233) or texting "FOOD" to UNICEF (864233) to donate $10.