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U.N. Releases Troubling Stats On Children In Conflict Zones


UNICEF has just released an end-of-year statement full of really devastating statistics about children in conflict zones. Here are a few of them - 11 million kids in Yemen need humanitarian assistance; almost 700 children were killed in Afghanistan in the first nine months of this year; in Nigeria, Boko Haram has forced kids to act as suicide bombers. I asked UNICEF USA CEO Caryl Stern what concerns her most as we head into a new year.

CARYL STERN: Obviously, the Syrian refugee crisis is huge, you know, and the idea of what's going on in Yemen right now, the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar - all of it with 50 million kids on the move - 28 million of them forcibly removed from their homes - these are staggering numbers. And the world is not yet prepared for what to do with them.

KING: When you try to wrap your mind around the scale of these numbers, how do you narrow this down so that this suffering doesn't just become millions upon millions upon millions of faceless children?

STERN: You know, it's really hard for us to get our arms around numbers that big. And so I try to tell the story of what it means for a child to be recruited and forced into either slavery or trafficking or recruited into armed forces at a very young age. You know, kids are being used as human shields. They're trapped under siege - we keep seeing that on the news everywhere - targeted by snipers. And this is what these kids are living with every single day.

KING: You've been in charge of the U.S. arm of UNICEF for the last 10 years. Do you think the norms around children in combat have changed? Is it less likely for children to be identified as civilians, as people that you don't touch, you don't hurt them?

STERN: You know, it's an interesting question. I think the world is more aware today that children are being recruited. You know, I think we were shocked when we first saw that. It's like disasters. You know, you always say after a little while the disasters don't sound as bad because you hear so many of them. So has the situation grown? It absolutely has. There are more kids being recruited than ever before. And I think our tolerance for it is that we're less shocked. I don't think we accept it as OK, but we're less shocked by it, which makes our jobs that much harder.

KING: Are you worried about the Trump administration saying that the United States should change its relationship to the United Nations? Are you worried about some of the talk around cuts to aid for particular countries?

STERN: I am extremely worried about cuts to aid. You know, any time that we deny a child a childhood, I'm worried, as we all should be, because we shouldn't be defining children by their borders. We should be defining them by their age. And it is no less horrific for a child born in Yemen or Syria or Myanmar or Texas this year or Florida. Any child being denied a childhood is an immoral situation for me. And I really believe that we as a people need to stand up for children.

KING: Is there anything in the coming year in 2018 that you're really hoping to see that you think in light of these staggering numbers and in light of so much despair - is there something in 2018 that you are looking forward to, that you think might get better?

STERN: I'm really hoping that as Americans we can begin to put children first. You know, there was a huge celebration on November 20 of World Children's Day. And one of the things that came out of it that I thought was really interesting is when an artist - forgive me, I can't think of the artist's name - did a statue which was a replica of a desk in the General Assembly but made for a child and asked that it be put on the General Assembly floor so as world leaders make decisions they will consider their impact on children. If I have a goal for this year, it's let's get that desk in every place, every decision room. Let's all start to think about, as I consider my product, as I consider my government policy, my immigration laws, et cetera, can we all come to some agreement about putting children in our minds as we make those decisions?

KING: Caryl Stern is the CEO of UNICEF USA. Caryl, thank you so much.

STERN: Thank you so much, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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