How 'Law & Order: SVU' Turned Mariska Hargitay into an Advocate for Rape Survivors

"I think I was meant to do this," the actress and activist tells PEOPLE in the cover story for this week's Women Changing the World issue

Mariska Hargitay has investigated sex crimes as Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU for 21 seasons and counting. When viewers started to reach out to her about their own experiences, she was moved.

“So many of them said, ‘I’ve never told anyone this before,’ ” the actress, 56, tells PEOPLE in the cover story for this week’s Women Changing the World issue.

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law and order SVU
Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Then Hargitay realized that her character listening to victims made a difference to real-life survivors. “Having the character, Olvia Benson, listen — that was so powerful,” she says. “People used to call me the accidental activist. I didn’t take this job on SVU to do this work. But I think I was meant to do this.”

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Hargitay trained as a rape crisis counselor and in 2004 started her own nonprofit organization, the Joyful Heart Foundation, to support survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Then when she learned in 2009 about the number of untested rape kits in America, she prioritized the foundation’s End the Backlog initiative.

Mariska Hargitay
Cliff Watts

“I couldn’t believe that this could happen,” Hargitay says. “This is a crystal clear microcosm of what is wrong with our society.”

RELATED VIDEO: Mariska Hargitay Shines A Light on A Shocking Injustice Against Sexual Assault Survivors: Thousands of Untested Rape Kits.

The Golden Globe winner teamed with Michigan prosecutor and rape activist Kym Worthy to take on the cause. “I met Kym and said, ‘Listen to me, I’m your soldier. You tell me what you need. How can we do this?’ ” Hargitay recalls. “And we just joined forces.”

Mariska hargitay and Kim worthy
Paul Warner/Getty

With Worthy’s help, Hargitay documented the process of four women in Cleveland, Detroit and Los Angeles, having their kits tested after years of being ignored in her Emmy-winning 2018 HBO documentary I Am Evidence.

“That’s all these women need is to be believed,” says Hargitay, who testified twice in front of Congress about the backlog issue. “They need to be respected and seen and heard, and have somebody go, ‘I’m so sorry.’ And that person needs to be held accountable.”

Mariska Hargitay
Cliff Watts

The Joyful Heart Foundation’s End the Backlog initiative has identified more than 225,000 untested rape kits sitting in police offices, crime labs or other storage facilities across the United States and helped establish legislation supporting rape kit reform in 41 states. Congress has also approved $131 million for the Sexual Assault Kit initiative.

“Eradicating the rape kit backlog is no longer if, it’s when now,” Hargitay says. “I know that.”

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