Chances are, you know Priyanka Chopra from her role in the hit ABC series, Quantico, from her internationally renowned films, or maybe even for being the fierce wearer of the trench coat that launched a thousand memes. However, Chopra's role as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador is the one that she's "vehemently passionate" about.
Refinery29 recently caught up with Chopra on the phone following her trip with UNICEF to Zimbabwe and South Africa, where she met child survivors of sexual assault and heard their stories. Though she's been involved with UNICEF in India for almost 14 years now and has been a global ambassador for two years, Chopra says that this trip in particular was extremely difficult.
"One out of every three girls in Zimbabwe under 18 has dealt with sexual violence," she tells us. "That’s a crazy number. In South Africa, it’s one out of five."
"Meeting these girls themselves made them bigger than a statistic to me," she explains. "You know, there are names and faces, and I sat with them one-on-one and I heard their stories, and they just needed to have someone come and tell them that they have the right to live, because society gives you the stigma that it would have been your fault, or that you asked for it."
Many of the girls that Chopra met were sexually assaulted by father figures, such as uncles, friends, and even fathers. She recalled meeting Alice*, a 13-year-old girl in Zimbabwe who had been repeatedly assaulted by an uncle, and threatened if she told anyone. Eventually, a relative found condoms in the girl's bedroom and realized she was sexually active — and had become pregnant.
"At first, she could not believe that her own relative, who she trusted so much, could do this to her," Chopra says. "She felt powerless and betrayed."
With the help of her mother and neighbors, the incidents were reported to police, and the girl was referred to Family Support Trust, a UNICEF-supported organization for medical and psychosocial support. The uncle was arrested, tried, and jailed for 10 years.
Meeting girls like Alice*, Chopra says, was an eye-opening experience that reminded her of her own privilege and responsibility to bring attention to the issues that we as a society have become desensitized to.
Chopra credits her social consciousness to her parents, who instilled in her a sense of moral responsibility.
"My parents were like that, they’re both doctors who believe in giving back," she says of Ashok and Madhu Chopra. "Especially being extremely aware of our privilege — the fact that we get to live the lives that we do, even eating three meals a day and having a comfortable bed, being able to drive cars and do what we want to do in our careers and our lives. So many girls in the world don’t get to decide that for themselves."
It's her responsibility as someone with a public platform, she feels, to advocate for girls everywhere to have a better future.
"I think as public people, it definitely is our social responsibility — obviously you cannot force people to have a social responsibility — but I just think that when you’re privileged enough to be in the position and the platform that we’ve been put into, [it's important to bring] light and awareness to those causes."
Does that responsibility and activism ever bleed into her career?
"I do think so, yes, sometimes, but I also feel like a responsibility of morality should not come onto art," she says. "I think that art is an expression, and I don’t think that morality should be weighed in on art, but through art if you can tell a story or a point of view or bring light to something, then definitely it often can happen, but I think it has to be organic. Otherwise, we’ll never have expression in the world if we put that kind of pressure on art."
Being a world-renowned actress, producer, and noted activist is, of course, a balancing act — Chopra says that she hopes to be able to take another trip with UNICEF sometime this year, though it will of course depend on her upcoming projects.
In the meantime, she says, you don't necessarily have to be able to travel to hard-hit areas or completely change your life to be able to get involved and help those in need.
"You just have to be conscious and aware of the people around you, and what’s happening around you," she says. "If you can donate your money, that’s great, but if you can donate your time, that’s even better because then you become an advocate for people who are really forgotten."
"You are a voice for the voiceless," she says. "Everywhere you look around the world, there is a way of giving back."
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
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