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A Little Boy Who Lived In A Box Gave Sweden's Queen A New Mission

Queen Silvia of Sweden attends the World Childhood Foundation 16th anniversary gala Thursday in New York City.
Theo Wargo
Getty Images for World Childhood
Queen Silvia of Sweden attends the World Childhood Foundation 16th anniversary gala Thursday in New York City.

How cool is Queen Silvia of Sweden?

Back in 1976, superstar band ABBA congratulated her on her marriage to Swedish King Carl Gustaf with a performance of their hit song Dancing Queen on Swedish TV.

In the 1990s, she took up a cause many found too disturbing for anyone, much less a queen, to talk about — the plight of sexually exploited, abused and trafficked children — and founded the World Childhood Foundation, which today supports more than 100 projects in 16 countries, focused on preventing child abuse, assisting victimized or at-risk children and educating the public.

It was in that role last Thursday that Queen Silvia appeared at a meeting at the United Nations focused on promoting child protection as part of its Sustainable Development Goals summit. And there, seemingly off-the-cuff, the elegantly dressed, soft-spoken 71-year-old monarch calmly challenged fellow attendee Hans Vestberg, the CEO of the giant global communications technology company Ericsson, to "take up that torch" to help victimized or at-risk children. How? By adding a free app to the company's 7.2 billion cellphones that would educate and alert everyone to children's rights.

No definite word yet on Vestberg's response. Nonetheless, not many public figures, royalty or not, could speak so directly yet cordially to corporate power.

Later that day, dressed in a ruby gown with whorls of fabric shaped to resemble a rose, and adorned with an emerald pendant and matching earrings, she took a few moments to speak to us as she prepared for the fundraising gala where she would thank various luminaries for their contributions to the organization, including actress Uma Thurman and Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become interested in child protection?

My husband and I travel quite a lot, and in many parts of the world we saw children in serious situations. We were in Brazil, where I grew up, and I wanted to see the favelas — the shanty-towns, the poor neighborhoods. So we went. There was a little boy, about 9 or 10, who wanted to show me something, so I followed him. It was a box! And that is where he lived, all by himself. "This is my house!" he told me. He seemed very proud of it.

On the flight back to Sweden we went through terrible thunderstorms, and I suddenly thought: What happened to this little boy in his box? He was alone, unprotected, and I thought, I have to do something.

What did you do next?

I began talking about it. That was the 1990s. I thought about street children, the sexual abuse of children. And nobody dares to talk about this! But if you don't talk about it, you can't change it.

What was the initial response when you raised the subject?

I remember talking about child abuse at a conference in Paris, and everybody was very shocked. I said to the audience, I am as shocked as you are that this is going on, and to talk about it is not easy — not as a woman, as a mother or as a queen — but I have to draw your attention to it.

And as the queen of Sweden, you also have some power to bring the issue to the table.

I don't like to use the word power. But yes, I can of course draw attention to these difficult issues. That is very important.

One of the tragedies of any refugee crisis is that where there are unprotected children, traffickers and predators also appear on the scene. What is your organization doing to protect children from them?

The situation is dangerous. In September I was in Germany for a seminar on protecting refugee children from sexual violence, among other issues. The foundation has 10 projects ongoing. Also, 12 companies are partnering with Childhood in Germany to provide education and, later on, also employment, so [refugee children] really will have a future. [The projects provide a range of services, including psychological counseling, vocational training and help in improving living conditions.]

Tell us about the project you're running in Brazil, working with transportation companies and truck drivers to be on the lookout for unprotected children.

In 2002 Childhood Brazil began educating truck drivers and transportation companies about sexual exploitation of children and adolescents. We are transforming [these transportation workers] into our ambassadors, to protect children in vulnerable situations on the road [for instance, at truck stops] or [to ask questions when] asked to transport unaccompanied minors.

So would you say that if the queen of Sweden does not hesitate to speak about these issues, we should speak about them, too?

Yes. We must initiate this dialogue and share the responsibility to protect our children.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Diane Cole
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