Law & Order: SVU changed the trajectory of Mariska Hargitay's life in an unexpected way when she took on the starring role of "Olivia Benson" in the popular show. That's because after seeing viewers' response to her character, who investigates sex crimes in Law & Order: SVU, Hargitay herself became an advocate for victims of sexual assault!

In a new interview for People, which happens to be the cover story for this week's special "Women Changing the World" edition of the magazine, Hargitay shared how she was moved by viewers reaching out to her. "So many of them said, ‘I’ve never told anyone this before,’" she revealed. It was then, Hargitay said, that she came to realize how playing "Olivia" actually made a difference to real-life survivors.

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Mariska Hargitay attends the annual Voices for Justice Dinner hosted by Human Rights Watch on November 13, 2018.

Law & Order's Mariska Hargitay: "I think I was meant to do this"

Hargitay explained that because "Olivia" listened to victims of sexual assault in Law & Order: SVU, real-life survivors felt heard through her. "Having the character, "Olivia Benson", listen — that was so powerful," Hargitay said. "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".

That calling was what led to Hargitay deciding to train as a rape crisis counselor. And in 2004, she started her own non-profit organization to support survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault, the Joyful Heart Foundation.

In 2009, Hargitay discovered how many untested rape kits there were in the United States, causing her to prioritize her organization's "End the Backlog" initiative. Hargitay says she "couldn't believe" the situation, calling it "a clear microcosm of what is wrong with our society".

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Mariska Hargitay attends the Law & Order: SVU Television Milestone Celebration on September 25, 2019.

Hargitay takes legal action to help sexual assault victims

Hargitay then talked about what she did when she realized the issue of untested rape kits being backlogged. She teamed up with Michigan-based prosecutor and activist Kym Worthy, offering herself to her as a proponent of 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?’" shared Hargitay. "And we just joined forces".

Thanks to Hargitay and Worthy's joint effort, they were successfully able to document the process of four women in Cleveland, Detroit, and Los Angeles getting their kits tested instead of being ignored as they had been for years. Hargitay testified twice against Congress about the backlog issue, which resulted in their approval of $131 million for the Sexual Assault Kit initiative, and her 2018 HBO documentary on the topic, titled I Am Evidence, went on to receive an Emmy.

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"That’s all these women need is to be believed," said Hargitay. "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".

Her organization's "End the Backlog" initiative has been quite successful, establishing legislation around rape kit reform in 41 states and identifying more than 225,000 untested kits. "Eradicating the backlog is no longer when," Hargitay says. "It's now. I know that".