Thank you for this opportunity Debi. It's good to sometimes reflect on what has gone before, think about what we have taken from it to bring us to where we are today, and consider our place in the world
***Post no longer accessible on Debi's site so full text below***
When I was six I thought I wanted to be a ballerina. Plump, rosy cheeked, and more interested in the after-performance snack than the fancy footwork, it was never going to happen, but at the time it seemed like a good idea. By the time I was 12, I had realised khaki was more my colour than pink, and set my sights on becoming a war correspondent. The danger-girl tomboy I had become wanted to go to dusty, scary foreign lands, to seek out adventure, dodge bullets, play hide-and-seek and tell people’s stories to the world. I had some odd notion that it was glamorous, exciting, fun even, and if anything went wrong, my two brothers could step in and help. A slightly outrageous dream, but it was mine. I may not have become a war correspondent after all, but pieces of that childhood dream have shown up in different places on my journey to here – as traveller, linguist, UNICEF worker, TV presenter.
Every child has a dream about what they want to be when they grow up, no matter what family, tribe, faith or skin they are born into. For some children fulfilling that dream is more of an uphill struggle than for others. But the remarkable thing is that often, the greater the struggle, the more they hold onto that dream. And that can be an incredibly powerful thing.
This is one of the many things I learnt during my time at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the world’s biggest organisation working for children and children’s rights.
Strangely for a global organisation of its size, its ultimate vision is for us to live in a world where its services are no longer required. My travels with UNICEF took me far and wide, beyond the city lights to desert sands and lush rice fields, up mountains, down rivers, into schools, into homes, into other people’s lives.
In rural West Bengal in India, the stunningly beautiful countryside around Kolkata, I met Deepu*. At seven-years old he spent five hours a day picking up coal from the edge of a mine, and selling it to a local tinker to put food on his family’s table. He dreamt of being a teacher ‘to make people clever’, even though he regularly skipped school himself to go to work.
In a coastal province of Thailand I met Muk*, a nine-year old girl who had lost 18 members of her family in the devastating Asian tsunami. Daughter of a fisherman, she had had to leave her father in the remains of their family home and move inland to live with her uncle as she had become scared of the sound of the sea. That’s like someone in New York being scared of the sound of cars. She dreamt of becoming a nurse ‘to make people well’.
In Zambia I met Mwenzi*, who at 15 was the head of her household, responsible for four siblings after her parents had both died from HIV/AIDS related complications. She dreamt of becoming a DJ ‘to make people happy’.
These were their dreams, and they clung on tightly to them.
Each of them was being supported by UNICEF in some way, whether with psychosocial help, access to healthcare, clean water and sanitation or better schooling. Each one of them knew that there was someone who believed in them, who cared enough to do something, who saw through the situation to the person they could become.
UNICEF was established as the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund after World War II, and is known by my parents' generation as an organisation that delivered emergency supplies. Now simply the United Nations Children's Fund, it still plays a vital role in emergencies, is the world's biggest purchaser of vaccines, and works with partner organisations on the ground to improve the quality of education, health, and other key services. But a lot of UNICEF's work is about the bigger picture, less tangible but perhaps even more important in the grand scheme of things. It is about influencing govenment policies and national budgets in favour of children, about fighting for their rights, and changing attitudes towards them. It is also about giving them a voice, and a role in their own future and that of the society they live in.
I have lost count of the number of times I have mulled over how different my life might have been if I had been born in a different place or time, to a different family or society. But I always come back to wondering whether the difference would just be the situation, and fundamentally I would be the same person, with the same values, as now. The situation we find ourselves in can make life harder or easier, but in the end, life is what we make it (with a little bit of help from our friends).
The same goes for the children in our lives. I believe we have a responsibility to help them reach their full potential, in the same way others have helped us. And for those children like Deepu, Muk and Mwenzi who don’t necessarily have the support system every child deserves to help them get there, there is always UNICEF. At least for as long as it’s needed.
*Names have been changed