Editor’s Note: Priyanka Chopra is an actress, singer and film producer. She was appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in December 2016 and a UNICEF India Ambassador in 2007. She is part of UNICEF’s work to protect children against sexual violence and recently traveled to Harare and Zimbabwe with UNICEF. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
Priyanka Chopra: In Zimbabwe, I met a young woman whose uncle raped and infected her with HIV
UNICEF and Africaid are empowering her and many others through education and counseling, Chopra writes
For Tanaka (whose name has been changed to shield her identity), a 21-year-old woman from Zimbabwe, sexual violence was a constant throughout most of her life. People she should have been able to trust – like her uncle, cousin and even pastor – all allegedly abused her. And the strain of her suffering drove her to the brink of suicide.
I met Tanaka earlier this month in Zimbabwe, a country grappling with the effects of last year’s drought, poverty and a weakened economy. I visited in my role as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador to meet with child survivors of sexual violence, and to learn what more we can do as a global society to protect children from such a gross violation of their rights.
Sexual violence is a worldwide occurrence, but in Zimbabwe the numbers are startling. According to figures compiled by UNICEF and the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZIMSTAT) in 2011, 1 in 3 women aged 18-24 has experienced sexual violence before the age of 18. The issue is serious enough that a whole Cabinet committee has been set up to address the problem of sexual violence, and the government has devised a protocol for helping survivors.
Evidence shows that sexual violence can have devastating and long-lasting psychological, physical and social consequences for children. They are at increased risk of unwanted pregnancy, psychological distress, difficulties at school and contracting HIV – and can face stigma and discrimination in their communities because of what has happened to them.
In Harare, I was shocked to meet girls who have been raped or abused by someone close to them. Too often, people think that sexual violence happens at the hands of someone unknown to the victim, but more often than not, the perpetrators are people they know.
Tanaka told me her story. She was first abused by her cousin, when she was just 6. At 15, she was drugged and raped by a neighbor while her parents were at a wedding. Extremely depressed and fearful, she was sent to live with a pastor who offered support. But he, too, sexually abused her, until she ran away and moved in with an aunt and uncle. The cycle of abuse did not stop there: Her own uncle raped her – and infected her with HIV.
Everyone she thought she could trust took advantage of her. Not being able to bear her life anymore, she attempted suicide.
At this point, family members stepped in and took her to see a doctor, where she learned of her HIV status, underwent counseling from a psychologist, and received social support from her peers.
Thankfully, there is light to be found in Tanaka’s story; she is now using her experiences to counsel and support HIV-positive adolescents in her community.
She is a community adolescent treatment supporter with Africaid, an organization supported by UNICEF that provides specialist services for children living with HIV. She helps to provide children and their families with the knowledge, skills and confidence to stay safe and to cope with the stigma and discrimination.
She told me that when she finishes school she wants to be a psychologist, so she can provide others with the same support she received.
Tanaka is one girl and one story, but, sadly, there are so many more. Around the world, data compiled by UNICEF show that 120 million girls under the age of 20, that’s about 1 in 10, have been subjected to forced sexual intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives.
I left Zimbabwe grateful to the young people who shared their stories with me. I know it wasn’t easy. We shared many tears, but also some smiles. I went there to hear their stories, and to share them with the world so that these children don’t remain just another statistic. I didn’t expect their stories to be so shocking. It is still hard to process what I heard.
Although I was left heartbroken by what they have endured, I was also inspired by the young people I met. They have been through the unimaginable, and are working with UNICEF to help build a world where sexual violence is not tolerated.
And while it might feel uncomfortable, we, as a society, need to have difficult conversations in our homes, in our workplaces and within our communities, so that together we raise awareness that sexual violence against children is happening and, collectively, we help put an end to it.
It is on us to provide and take care of our children as citizens of the world, to educate children at a young age that it’s not OK to be inappropriately touched, that underage sex can lead to unwanted teen pregnancy or HIV, and that children can tell someone without recrimination.
It’s on us as a society to not forget the people who have been forgotten – like these people.