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By UNICEF Australia
12 December 2021

In 1988, Audrey Hepburn took on what she considered the greatest role of her career: UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

As a mother, Audrey Hepburn cared deeply about the world’s children. But the movie star had another personal reason for choosing to work with UNICEF – the children’s organisation helped her survive malnutrition as a child.

UNICEF was created in the aftermath of World War II to help children in crisis. It was then, in the winter of 1944, when Audrey first met UNICEF. "I was in Holland during the war, during the German occupation,” she said. “The last winter was the worst of all. Food was scarce and whatever there was went to the troops.”

"I can testify what UNICEF means to children,” said the late actress, "because I was among those who received food and medical relief right after World War II. There's a big difference between dying of starvation and malnutrition, of course, but I was very, very undernourished.”

“All the local schools were turned into relief centres. I was one of the beneficiaries with the other children. I've known about UNICEF all my life."

Audrey Hepburn in Bangladesh
Audrey Hepburn meets girls in a UNICEF-supported school in Bangladesh.
© UNICEF/UNI40127/Isaac

Committed to help children

Audrey Hepburn’s dedication to children became immediately clear in her role as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. After her first trip to see UNICEF’s programs in Ethiopia, where drought and conflict had led to famine, Hepburn used her celebrity profile for good. She spent weeks talking to media outlets around the world about UNICEF’s work – giving as many as 15 interviews a day.

"I came from Ethiopia feeling exhilarated and optimistic,” said Hepburn. “I went with so many people telling me how harrowing and dreadful it would be to see the extent of the suffering, the death and the despair.”

“Certainly, I saw children in an advanced state of malnutrition, although they are not dying in masses as happened before. But I also witnessed how much is being done to help and how just a small amount of aid can assist in treating the sick, irrigating the land and planting new crops."

"I came to realise that Ethiopia's problems are not insoluble if only the world will give a little more."

Audrey Hepburn in Ethiopia
Audrey Hepburn visiting a food distribution centre in Mehal Meda, Ethiopia. It’s where she first saw UNICEF’s work as Goodwill Ambassador.
© UNICEF/UNI40095/Isaac

"When they see UNICEF, their faces light up, because they know that something is happening."

Audrey Hepburn

Hepburn’s commitment to children never wavered. In the following years she visited a polio vaccine project in Turkey and programs for disadvantaged children and women across South America. She saw schools in Bangladesh, projects for children in poverty in Thailand, nutrition projects in Viet Nam and camps for displaced children in Sudan.

Though all her work, Hepburn’s message was clear: “There is just no question that there is a moral obligation for those who have, to give to those who have nothing.”

"UNICEF has a wonderful long arm, trying to reach the most wounded, and UNICEF works in a marvelous way to help people retain their dignity,” she said. “Given a spade, which UNICEF provides, they can dig a well. We must now make sure that they do not have to dig graves for their children."

Hepburn also worked tirelessly for UNICEF when not visiting programs. She testified before the US Congress, launched UNICEF reports, hosted award ceremonies, designed fundraising cards, participated in benefit concert tours and gave many speeches and interviews promoting UNICEF's work.

"Anyone who doesn't believe in miracles is not a realist. I have seen the miracle of water which UNICEF has helped to make a reality for a village in Central America, where for centuries young girls and women had to walk for miles to get water. Now they have clean drinking water near their homes. Water is life and clean water now means health for the children of this village."

Hepburn received the United States' Presidential Medal of Freedom in December 1992. During that year, though ill with cancer, she continued her work for UNICEF, travelling to Somalia, Kenya, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, France and the United States.

Help Audrey’s legacy live on

Children in today’s emergencies are just like young Audrey Hepburn – they have a bright future ahead of them and the right to a good childhood now.

Audrey Hepburn was dedicated to helping UNICEF build a better world for children. Today, her legacy continues through donors delivering the life-saving aid Audrey received as a child. You can join that proud, growing community as a UNICEF Global Parent. All it takes is a small, ongoing gift to protect a child in danger and help them grow up safe and healthy.

"Let us never forget those children who do not know peace, who do not know joy and do not smile. It is for these children that I speak, children who cannot speak for themselves."

Audrey Hepburn

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