Danai Gurira may be known for playing the strong female-warrior Okoye in Black Panther, but the woman behind the screen is just as fierce in her championing of women’s rights.
The Walking Dead star was named a Women Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations while hosting the Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 event celebrating the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Sunday.
“The pursuit of advocacy for women around the world is definitely my passion,” Gurira, 40, tells PEOPLE. “So it’s very good to align with them this way.”
She will focus her efforts on gender equality and women’s rights.
“We can’t accomplish anything until we’re on an equal playing field,” the actress says. “What are we doing if we’re not trying to make an equal playing field for men and women? The inequality makes no sense. So to make sure that equality does occur, I’m putting all my efforts behind equality as the top priority for my efforts. In my mind, how else can we proceed without making sure women get to explore their full potential as well as men.”
The Iowa-born star credits growing up in Zimbabwe (she moved back with her Zimbabwean parents at age 5) with why she wants to help give voices to disadvantaged women.
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“I grew up around a developing country grappling with the onslaught of HIV-AIDS,” Gurira recalls. “Women were grappling for the rights to be able to own land, the rights to be able to inherit land, the right to be able to have a bank account. I have a purpose and it’s based on how I was born into this world. I focus on my life’s work. That’s what everyone has to do is, what are we called into this world to do with the time we have here? I pursue my truth and I pursue what I’m authentically passionate about. And that is my job.”
To further advocate for HIV and AIDS awareness, Gurira partnered with Johnson & Johnson for the company’s Make HIV History initiative, which is testing a preventative HIV vaccine in five southern African countries including South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi with women ages 18-35 — the most at-risk group. The study is called IMBOKODO, the Zulu word for “rock.” Gurira promoted the company’s #MakeHIVHistory campaign while in Africa on Saturday for the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day.
The cause has been particularly important to Gurira throughout her career, as she witnessed firsthand how the epidemic hit Zimbabwe in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2005, she even wrote and starred in a play about two HIV-positive women called In the Continuum.
“The issue is still quite dire,” Gurira says. “We still see a high number of girls contracting the illness every day across the globe. It’s an urgent matter of our time and one that we can bring real change to once we get the awareness flowing again. To an extent, we have to re-engage the issue constantly. The work Johnson & Johnson is doing will hopefully bring an end to this epidemic in our lifetime.”