UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Priyanka Chopra has called for increased awareness and support for child victims of sexual violence. The actress made an emotional visit to Zimbabwe this week, where she met child survivors of sexual violence and heard their harrowing stories.
“When I met these survivors, young brave women and children, and listened to their experiences, it just broke my heart,” said Chopra. “I will never forget their stories.”
She said it was “an eye-opening experience” meeting girls who had been shunned by society and thrown out of their homes after being raped. She says girls are told it’s their fault.
“I heard a lot of this when I asked these government officials who said girls are asking for it,” she said. Some girls were as young as 3 when they were raped by their fathers, uncles or other relatives, she said.
One out of three children under 18 in Zimbabwe has suffered some form of sexual violence, she said, calling that “staggering.” In neighboring South Africa it’s one out of five, she said.
Chopra, who turned heads with her sweeping Ralph Lauren trench coat at Monday’s Met Gala in New York, said she feels it’s her duty to use her celebrity status to fight for worthy causes, especially violence against children.
“I am from India and I have seen wealth and poverty live together all my life,” she said. “That is the state of the world. That is our reality. It takes people like us who are privileged, who have everything that we may need in abundance, to be able to share it in parts of the world where they may not have that.”
Once-prosperous Zimbabwe has sunk into economic crisis over the years, with a cash crunch so severe that livestock in some cases is being accepted in lieu of currency. Unemployment is high, and the health and social services system has suffered.
Chopra, who stars in the upcoming “Baywatch” film, said she couldn’t get one Zimbabwe girl’s story out of her mind.
“Sadly, Alice’s story was just one of too many stories I heard from brave young girls during my visit to Zimbabwe. No woman, and most definitely no child, should ever have to experience sexual violence – especially from someone they trust for protection, such as a family member,” said Chopra.
Sexual violence against children is widespread in Zimbabwe. Latest available data shows that close to 1 in 10 girls aged 15-17 years old has been a victim of forced sexual intercourse or a forced sexual act. Approximately 2 in 3 victims were first abused by an intimate partner and approximately 1 in 10 by a stranger.
Too often, sexual violence occurs in homes and is often committed by an individual known to or trusted by the child. Sexual violence against children is therefore mostly invisible and goes largely undocumented. Fear of getting into trouble or not wanting to land the offender in trouble, as well as shame and stigma all contribute to children not reporting the abuse. Additionally, many victims are too young or too vulnerable to know what happened to them.
One survey carried out in Zimbabwe found that 30 per cent of girls aged between 15-17 years who experienced sexual violence never sought help or told anyone.
The girl told Chopra how she was raped by her uncle when she was 7.
“The pastor of their church told her family that she was possessed and she should come and live with him … but the pastor raped her for two years,” Chopra said.”
She was taken away from there and sent to another uncle and aunty of hers. The aunty then forced her to have sex with her husband, who was HIV positive. That was how she contracted HIV at age 17.” The girl tried to kill herself three times before she was rescued by a group that offered her psychological support, Chopra said.
The U.N. Population Fund calls Zimbabwe an “extremely young country,” with 62 percent of the population under 25.
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