Priyanka Chopra is raising awareness about the heartbreaking reality of sexual violence against children around the globe.
The Quantico actress recently traveled to Africa for the first time with UNICEF, where she met with child survivors of sexual violence in both Zimbabwe and South Africa and listened to their heartbreaking stories.
Chopra, who has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since December 2016 and a UNICEF India Ambassador for 10 years, exclusively tells PEOPLE, “The subject matter was so hard because it was sexual violence against kids and the number is ridiculously staggering. … One out of three girls in Zimbabwe under 18 has been sexually violated in some way. One out of three. South Africa is one out of five. And these are children who are violated, it’s not by strangers, but by relatives and uncles and fathers. It’s just so harrowing and hard to see.”
During her trip, the 34-year-old recalls meeting a 10-year-old girl who was raped for two years by her grandfather, who threatened his granddaughter that she would be arrested if she told anyone. “She finally told her mom and her mom reported him and he’s in jail. Now she just wants to be a doctor and an actress. She kept telling me, ‘Please don’t forget me,’ ” says Chopra.
After hearing about the brave stories from countless child survivors of sexual violence, Chopra admits that broke down “many times” when she was alone on the trip.
“These kids, they don’t need sympathy — they need empowerment. You can’t go there with like, ‘Oh my God, I feel so bad for you.’ You need to go there saying, ‘You have wings and you have strength. You are so much more than what anyone can try to reduce you to.’ Because their dignity has been stripped,” says the ABC star. “Even though it was hard on me, there was no way that I could ever let any one of them see it because I went there as a symbol of strength.”
Since returning to the United States and reflecting on the true-life stories that the children detailed, Chopra is making it her mission to shed light on the reality at hand, and calling citizens globally to not turn a blind eye.
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“We need to come back to that point where we care as a society and we take it upon ourselves as a privileged society — as privileged people — that it is on us to take and look after children of the world because otherwise, where is this world going to? And why do we think that there’s so much bad that’s happening in the world right now, and there’s so much violence? It’s because we’re ignoring these children of the world who are dealing with so much because it’s easier,” says Chopra.
“I think that’s what I took back from there. I’ve been feeling extremely helpless because there’s so much that we do and can do … but you need the people of the world to raise their conscience and to be aware of what is happening around us. We don’t do that. We forget in two days after we’ve spread the news,” says the actress. “We need to be consistently aware. We need to consistently care and it needs to be important to us individually.”
For those who feel helpless from afar, the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador assures that there are practical and important actions that can be taken to help.
“If you can’t donate your money, donate your time, donate your compassion. That’s really important. Consciously be aware of people around you — even in your own society — that might need just a little bit of consideration,” she says. “I think being desensitized to the world that you live in is making us as a society more and more violent I think kindness and compassion needs to come back to humanity a little bit — a lot, not a little bit.”
“It just takes consciousness and being aware and doing your part, just a little bit. Imagine if each one of us does a little bit, how much can change? And not feeling burdened that, Oh my God, what is one me going to do? One me is not going to make a difference,” she continues. “A lot of people feel that way, when it really does. Because one me turns into many mes.”
To learn more about Unicef, including how you can help, click here.