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When Priyanka Chopra isn’t playing promising FBI recruit Alex Parrish on ABC’s Quantico or making a statement on the red carpet (who could forget that epic train on her Ralph Lauren trench coat evening gown at Met Gala?), the actress can be found devoting her time to UNICEF.
The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund is a United Nations program that’s dedicated to improving the lives of children and their families. Chopra has been a UNICEF India Ambassador for 10 years and has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since December 2016. As an ambassador, Chopra plays a role in raising awareness of the needs for children and using her celebrity to fundraise, advocate and educate on behalf of UNICEF.
Her most recent work with UNICEF took her to Zimbabwe, where she met with a number of child survivors of sexual violence and listened to their survival stories. Upon her return to the states, Chopra opened up to The Hollywood Reporter about her emotional, eye-opening experience.
Can you tell us more about your recent trip with UNICEF to Zimbabwe?
I’ve worked with UNICEF now for almost about 14 years, which is almost as long as my entire career. I was their goodwill ambassador in India for about 10 years. Now I’m their global ambassador and this was the first trip I took outside of India to Africa. This subject matter was especially hard for me — as it should be for everyone in the world — because it was about sexual violence against girls. The numbers are staggering, I feel like it’s almost an epidemic. 1 out of 3 girls under 18 in Zimbabwe have faced some form of sexual violence. I mean, imagine that in a world where you bring up your child. In South Africa, that number is 1 out of 5.
I spent a lot of time meeting girls whose dreams and ambitions are to be doctors and go to school and get a higher education. That’s taken away from them because they have babies at like 13 because they’re raped as pre-teens by their uncles or their fathers. As you would know, Zimbabwe is going through an economic crisis and I think poverty and unemployment leads to frustration, which leads to alcoholism, which leads to violence. It’s just a vortex of so much hardship that I witnessed while I was there.
I was sitting one-on-one with these girls and hearing their stories. There was this one-day-old baby girl who was raped by her father who died. There was another kid that I met and she was raped for the first time at age 7 for two years by her uncle. Then her parents found out and they took her to church and the pastor told her parents that she was possessed by the devil and that she should live with him for a while so he can take care of her. And then he raped her. Then she was sent to live with her mom’s sister and her mom’s sister forced her to have sex with her uncle, who was HIV positive. So she was HIV positive when she was 17.
Girls are stripped of their dignity and their respect just because they are vulnerable targets in a society, for which we as citizens of the world should be responsible. We live such privileged lives that we’ve gotten desensitized to everything else that’s happening in the world. There’s no place in the world where a child should be violated like that. I seriously believe it’s our responsibility as a society to be aware of what’s happening around the world and to do something about it.
What are some steps society can take to do more?
It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change your whole world around or empty your wallets — that’s not at all what it is. There are so many incredible NGOs (non-governmental organizations) like UNICEF which take it upon themselves to change the lives of these kids. First of all, it’s having the consciousness of wanting to give back, and if you can’t give as much money, because you know everyone has their own troubles, and I also don’t think people who are privileged should feel guilty about being privileged — that’s not at all what I’m saying. Having responsibility is important. You can donate your time. You can donate kindness, even around you. I think kindness and compassion is something we’ve forgotten. Get associated with NGOs. There are so many ways that you can help. Identify what’s important to you and then doing something about it is very important. We can’t just talk about it, we have to do something about it.
I’m talking about it, I’m a public person because if I talk about it, people will hopefully listen and take action. But that doesn’t mean I don’t take action too. Each one of us need to be advocates for people who don’t have voices.
I noticed that you posted very long captions on Instagram about the children you met during the trip — how important was it for you to use your social media platform to tell these children’s stories?
It was very important to me that people sort of follow my journey in real time as I was going through it. [I would hope] people who follow me would hear me out, maybe experience what I’m experiencing. Unfortunately, and it’s sad that I’m saying it, but some people consume other things a lot more, like what I wore to the Met Gala maybe — which is also another aspect to my personality and it’s fine — but I wished, even with press, people would read about what I’m saying, which is why I’m not talking statistics and I’m giving you names. I think that’s important for people to consume that as well, because I cannot express in words what I felt while I was there — it just won’t translate.
What organizations there are helping child survivors of sexual violence?
UNICEF has associated itself with so many organizations; there’s one organization that was completely funded by UNICEF called Childline, which was so incredible. In Harare, Zimbabwe, there are two of these centers and each one has about 20-something counselors and it’s a call center, where children who have dealt with or dealing with sexual violence, or any violence, can call in and someone will pick up the phone 24/7, 365 days a year. I heard these calls — I heard girls calling right after they’ve been raped or violated and within 30 minutes, they’ll be attached to a social care worker or the police. This is a safe place.
Then there’s the amazing work they’ve done with Africaid in Zimbabwe. There are these amazing safe parks that are peer-driven parks, so these kids can come into this place that’s completely cornered off — they feed you breakfast, you go to school and you come back, they feed you lunch, they take care of your homework. These are all volunteers. That was incredible to see that.
What are some next steps you hope to take after this trip?
I have been speaking with you guys and talking a lot about bringing attention to UNICEF and the incredible work it does. I’m hoping for a lot more support for them so they have the ability to change lives for these kids.
I hope to be able to continue my work, of course. India is a very important part of it for me and I will continue my work with India, for sure. I also hope to be able to touch many other countries around the world and bring awareness to what’s happening there.
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