In the world of Law & Order: SVU, Mariska Hargitay plays Captain Olivia Benson of the NYPD Special Victims Unit. Benson is a beloved character for many reasons — not least, her tireless work to defend the city’s sexual assault and rape survivors. In fact, Benson moved so many survivors that viewers began to reach out to Hargitay to share their own stories, often for the first time. Shocked and deeply moved, Hargitay realized she wanted to pursue this work off-screen too, and threw herself into advocacy work for rape survivors in real life.
Hargitay talked to People for their Women Changing the World issue about how her activism work began, starting with hearing her own viewers’ experiences with sexual assault. “So many of them said, ‘I’ve never told anyone this before,'” she shared. “Having the character, Olivia Benson, listen — that was so powerful. People used to call me the accidental activist.”
Hargitay has since founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving society’s response to survivors of abuse, and supporting those survivors. Their End the Backlog initiative is dedicated to identifying and testing the 225,000 backlogged rape kits across the country, and working on new policy to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
“I couldn’t believe that this could happen. This is a crystal clear microcosm of what is wrong with our society.,” Hargitay said of discovering this massive backlog. “Eradicating the rape kit backlog is no longer if, it’s when now. I know that.”
She’s testified in front of Congress twice about the backlog issue, and is still in disbelief at the current state of the system.
“All these women need is to be believed,” Hargitay said. “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.”
“I didn’t take this job on SVU to do this work,” she added. “But I think I was meant to do this.”