Mariska Hargitay Is a Voice for Survivors

Photo © Courtesy of Joyful Heart Foundation

By Raye Mocioiu

If there’s one thing that Mariska Hargitay has in common with Captain Olivia Benson, her character on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, it’s a deep awareness of the burden that survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse so often carry.

When Hargitay started playing Olivia Benson, the ambitious and emotionally driven detective, she was awakened to the weight of shame, pain, fear, and isolation that victims can feel—and became inspired by their courage. Now, Hargitay is as committed to confronting these issues as her character is on-screen.

An actress and activist, Hargitay has dedicated her time, talent, and resources to be a force for change and an advocate for survivors. With a passion for healing, education, and community involvement, Hargitay works to help survivors through awareness campaigns, education initiatives, and a variety of organizations, including her own.

Committed to ending violence and abuse and caring for those who have survived it, Hargitay has used her star power to advocate for critical legislation to bring healing and justice to survivors, prevent child abuse and neglect, and engage men to end violence and abuse. She has made public service announcements to end the rape kit backlog in the United States and partnered with NBC’s “The More You Know” campaigns to raise awareness and funding for victim assistance organizations.

Where Healing Begins

In 2004, Hargitay founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, cementing her dedication to providing assistance and advocacy for domestic violence and abuse survivors. The Foundation’s mission is to heal, educate and empower survivors to reclaim their lives and transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse.

Over nearly two decades of operation, the Joyful Heart Foundation has continuously put survivors first, creating a place for them to connect, learn, and, above all else, heal.

To start, the Foundation developed a retreat program focused on healing the mind, body, and spirit. Attendees were able to participate in activities that allowed them to address the effects of trauma and learn how to cope, with or without discussing their experiences. The retreat created an environment where participants felt safe to begin their healing process in a way that spoke to them.

In 2010, Joyful Heart launched the Heal the Healers program, an initiative that focused on giving back to the professionals who regularly work with survivors. Due to the difficult nature of this work, these professionals can often experience secondary trauma; post-traumatic stress disorder is a widespread response. Heal the Healers provided tools for therapists, lawyers, and social workers to use to better manage the effects that working with trauma survivors may bring on.

mariska hargitay
Photo © Courtesy of Joyful Heart Foundation

A Trusted Confidant

“It all started for me when I began my work on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” Hargitay explained on the Foundation’s website. “In my research for my role, I encountered statistics that shocked me: One in three women and one in six men are survivors of sexual violence.

Every 73 seconds in the United States, someone is sexually assaulted. Four to five children die every day in this country as a result of child abuse and neglect.”

Hargitay shared that the letters she would receive from fans and viewers of the show were what truly shook her to her core. Letters from women and children of all ages sharing their most personal and private secrets about abuse and violence in their homes or relationships, things they’d never told anyone before.

“That these individuals would reveal something so intensely personal—often for the very first time—to someone they knew only as a character on television, demonstrated to me how desperate they were to be heard, believed, supported, and healed,” Hargitay continued.

In reading these letters, Hargitay realized that she was in a position to potentially make a difference in the lives of those writing to her and countless others. She found that while each story was different, the fans writing in expressed familiar feelings in every letter.

“The first was pain—I was struck again and again by the depth of the betrayal these women had suffered, by how they defined themselves by what they were enduring, and how devastating violence and abuse are. The second theme was isolation. The word ‘alone’ appeared again and again. Whether a survivor was writing from midtown Manhattan or from a ranch in Waimea—she felt alone. She could have no one around her or everyone around her—it didn’t matter—she was isolated in shame and in fear of the consequences of speaking out.

“And lastly, the letters spoke of courage. And actually, the letters themselves were incredible, awe-inspiring acts of courage. I was holding courage in my hands, because the act of reaching out for help—the act of breaking the silence that imprisons so many survivors—is deeply courageous.”

Amazed by the vulnerability shared by these survivors and driven to help, Hargitay studied domestic violence and abuse, trained to become a crisis counselor, and used her platform to advocate for survivors.

Since then, the Joyful Heart Foundation has connected millions of survivors with the vital resource of community. Often, survivors feel so alone because they feel as though they must silently carry the weight of what happened on their shoulders, with no safe place to connect about what they’ve experienced.

“When people are abused and assaulted, it’s like the doors to their souls slam shut,” Hargitay said. “The goal of Joyful Heart is to let the light, and the life, back in—to banish the darkness and let the healing begin.”

Photo © Courtesy of Joyful Heart Foundation

Ending the Backlog

In 2012, Joyful Heart shifted its focus to another priority: ending the rape kit backlog. Working with federal, state, and local government partners, non-profit organizations, advocates, and survivors, Joyful Heart has been fighting to improve the criminal justice response to sexual violence and both address and prevent backlogs of untested rape kit evidence. Throughout this program, the organization has identified hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits sitting in police, crime lab, or other storage facilities across the U.S., with several hundred thousand more likely to be discovered.

The pursuit of justice is not only important for survivors looking to heal from their trauma but also to inform the public about the realities of sexual violence and assault. If survivors of sexual assault were taken seriously and given the space to speak openly about their experiences, more survivors would likely come forward and find the support and resources they need to help them heal more fully.

Joyful Heart has continuously been at the forefront of identifying untested rape kit evidence backlogs in cities across the country, advocating for funding to test backlogged kits and investigate cases, appealing for laws and policies to prevent backlogs from reoccurring, and developing and implementing survivor-centered reforms. In 2016, Joyful Heart took this initiative one step further, launching a national campaign based on six essential pillars for reform in order to pass comprehensive rape kit reform legislation in all 50 states. Their progress and more information, including best practice resources, can be found at

Following this launch, Hargitay produced the ‘Best Documentary’ Emmy-award-winning HBO film I AM EVIDENCE in 2017, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The documentary followed the stories of a group of survivors whose rape kits remained untested for years and, simultaneously, the law enforcement officials working to pursue change and justice in these cases.

With a focus on healing in mind, body, and soul, Mariska Hargitay and the Joyful Heart Foundation work to help survivors reclaim their lives and pursue justice. With a range of voices that have joined in the fight over the years, Hargitay’s commitment has drawn attention from all corners of the Earth and shares a heartening message to survivors: “We hear you. You have suffered enough. Your healing—and pursuit of justice—are our priorities.”

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