Mallika Dutt discusses her progressive human rights group, Breakthrough

Violence against women and girls is “the single largest human rights pandemic on this planet,” says Mallika Dutt, founder and CEO of progressive human rights group Breakthrough. Dutt had made it her mission to end violence and gender inequality by taking a fresh approach to addressing the issues. Breakthrough uses a combination of mass media, pop culture, technology, high-level partnerships and grassroots initiatives to try to transform the social and cultural norms that promote violence against women. Her campaigns have reached tens of millions of people around the planet.

Breakthrough was recently awarded the University of Pennsylvania’s annual Lipman Family Prize, which recognizes exemplary, innovative organizations operating in the social sector. Umi Howard, the director of the Lipman Family Prize, sat down with Dutt to discuss her work, her inspirations and her hopes for the future.

An edited transcript of the conversation appears below.

Howard: Mallika, in your career you’ve been a lawyer, a human rights advocate and the CEO of an international NGO. In 2000, you founded Breakthrough. Tell us, what compelled you to start this organization?

Dutt: Breakthrough was really an accident. I was working at the Ford Foundation in India as the Human Rights Program Officer and was thinking a lot about what we were doing in the human rights movement. I felt like we were in an echo chamber: We were talking to one another, as opposed to talking to the people around us who we were trying to transform. I started to think about outreach methods, [and] pop culture really stood out. This was during a time in India when television was becoming privatized. Previously, it was more controlled by the government.

I started to formulate the idea of producing a music album with a music video that addressed violence against women. The idea started rattling around in my head. While I had lots of experience in law, philanthropy, human rights, legal service and public policy, I didn’t know anything about music production, video production or media. So I started to talk to people and got the ball rolling. I met with people in Bombay’s entertainment industry at Sony, BMG, Virgin Music and MTV. As those conversations went on, this album started to take shape.

“I felt like we were in an echo chamber: We were talking to one another, as opposed to talking to the people around us who we were trying to transform.”

But I had many doubters. Many people said, “Album? Violence against women? Women’s issues? Really? This is not going to work.”

At the end of 2000, I launched the album and music video, “Mann Ke Manjeere”, which means “Rhythm of the Mind: An Album of Women’s Dreams”. I partnered with Virgin Records on the launch. Lo and behold, the album and music video went through the charts. The musical director, lyricist, main artist and myself were inundated with media requests. All of a sudden this album and video were out there in the public space, leading a conversation about violence against women in India.

When this happened I was faced with a choice: Stay at the Ford Foundation or pursue this new idea. I chose the latter. That’s how Breakthrough was born.

Howard: It’s fortunate you made that choice. Can you tell me about why the issue of violence against women and girls is so important?

Dutt: Violence against women and girls is the single largest human rights pandemic on this planet. Violence against women and girls takes place in homes, on the streets, in schools, in work places and in conflicts. Women are subjected to it everywhere. It can start with you being terminated because you happen to be a female fetus. You can be killed because you’re a female child. You can be subjected to incest and all kinds of sexual violence and abuse through your teenage years. You can also end up in a situation involving domestic violence. In the workplace, women are subjected to sexual harassment and all kinds of other forms of abuse. And even as a widow, many experience discrimination.

I believe violence against women underlies many other human rights issues. It’s the place where we learn to disrespect one another. It becomes ingrained in all of our cultural, political and social institutions, and can manifest itself in unequal pay and unequal access to health care. If we don’t take on gender-based discrimination as a core issue, then many other important problems really cannot be solved.

Howard: What model does Breakthrough use to approach this issue? How does Breakthrough use the media to accomplish its goals?

Dutt: Breakthrough aims to transform the social and cultural norms that promote violence against women. We want to stop these problems altogether, not just deal with them after they happen.

I’ve found that using culture to change culture is an effective way of engaging people. When I say “using culture,” that includes social media, television, radio, print, short animations, documentaries, street theater, traditional theater and comic books. We’re not focused on one form of storytelling. We use all storytelling forms to bring people into the conversation.

Media, arts and technology have been crucial to Breakthrough’s work. We’ve created several multimedia campaigns, three music videos, three video games and multiple documentaries. We’ve also won many awards.

“I believe violence against women underlies many other human rights issues. It’s the place where we learn to disrespect one another.”

One of our most successful campaigns started in India and it called on men to challenge violence against women. The campaign had television ads, radio ads and print ads, as well as street theater and other community outreach elements. It became a global campaign that was adopted in countries including Vietnam, Pakistan and China. We called on men to be part of the solution, as opposed to simply talking to men as if they were part of the problem. There was an incredible response to that shift in our approach.

As part of the campaign, we sent video vans into Indian communities to reach people in small towns and villages. The vans were accompanied by our human rights advocates – people trained to be advocates for women and girls – and this started a conversation about domestic violence at the grass roots level. The approach was very different from previous campaigns.

When you invite people to the table and say, “We’ve got a problem. It’s a problem for everyone. Let’s fix it,” it’s very different from saying, “You are a problem and we need to fix you.”

Howard: Yes.

Dutt: The next phase of the campaign was called “Ring the Bell — One Million Men, One Million Promises.” This went global last March and involved partnerships in South Africa, Brazil, Sweden, Nepal and other countries. This demonstrates how we use media, arts and culture to tell stories and we turn this into strategic partnerships with advertising agencies, government agencies, companies, grassroots organizations and celebrities. We want to engage the community and transform the societal norms that lead to violence against women.

Howard: The prize committee appreciated that Breakthrough’s work addressed this truly universal issue that affects people from all walks of life. It’s also very effective at using a bottom-up, grassroots approach and a top-down approach. Can you talk about what you’re learning from the blend of those two strategies and how this can lead to change?

Dutt: In my past work I had completed a lot of direct service work with abused women and represented them in court. I also worked at the UN level on addressing women’s rights issues and policies. So I had experience engaging at different points of intervention.

At Breakthrough, one of the things that I focused on was the question of scale. How many people can we reach with our resources? At the same time, I also understood that scale is reached through one person at a time. I was grappling with the question: How do you reach millions of people, transform millions of people and change their attitudes? I have found the media space allows you to scale your ideas. It allows you to talk to 30 million people, 130 million people or several hundred thousand people with relatively little in the way of resources.

Of course, you need some resources. A public service announcement (PSA) can cost $50,000. But if my $50,000 PSA reaches 130 million people, the numbers really worked in my favor. That is why mass media, and partnerships, are so important.

Now let’s look at the grassroots level. Our motto at Breakthrough is: “Human rights start with you.” We want to make sure that our messages become anchored in every single individual, wherever he or she is located. We need people to incorporate that change within themselves, otherwise it’s all just talk. That’s why the individual engagement work, community work and global constituency building work are all intertwined. And media, arts and technology are critically important to help straddle those multiple levels of engagement.

“At Breakthrough, one of the things that I focused on was the question of scale. How many people can we reach with our resources? At the same time, I also understood that scale is reached through one person at a time.”

Howard: Another attractive thing about Breakthrough is your intensive work centered on India and the U.S. As you have previously said, there is no “mother ship” or parent organization. I’m curious about what you learn in India and how that influences your work in the States.

Dutt: Years ago, it drove me nuts that so many international organizations were based in the global North, but would call themselves “international.” These organizations often didn’t do any work in their “home” country. For example, they existed in New York City but focused all their energy on Africa. I felt that this perpetuated old colonial narratives.

Therefore, when I launched Breakthrough, I incorporated it in India and the United States simultaneously. As founder, I said, “There are no headquarters and there are no field offices. Breakthrough is comprised of two centers that operate out of India and the United States. That’s how it is.”

Initially, we planned to address women’s human rights issues everywhere. But within a year of the launch, the September 11, 2001 attacks took place in the United States. This led to an intense backlash against immigrant communities, communities of color, South Asians and Muslims in the United States. So I decided, as an Indian-American, to be flexible.

We continued to work on the issue of violence against women in India, but in the U.S. we started to focus on the impact of 9/11 on human rights issues, including detention, deportation and developments in immigrant communities. An incredible body of work evolved in both countries and they started to inform one another.

Two years ago, we decided to refocus on our main mission: making violence against women and girls unacceptable. So the India center had 13 years of incredible programming and experience, and this center provided all kinds of help and support to the U.S. team. There was a whole body of learning that we adapted from India for the U.S. market.

Now in the United States we are looking at partnering with [college] fraternities as talk about sexual assault on campus has been gaining more attention. We are trying to figure out how to anchor our work within institutions and locations where this negative culture has been promoted. We are looking to … transform fraternity culture so that we can really address gender issues and challenge violence against women in a new way.

Howard: When it comes to human rights advocacy and media, are there any trends that you think we should be watching?

Dutt: Right now we’re seeing two things happen simultaneously. Firstly, the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. We have some really serious problems, including climate change, conflict, inequality, poverty and an economy that doesn’t seem to be providing jobs that offer the quality of life we had imagined. We’re seeing a lot of failing institutions and political leaders that don’t know how to fix this mess. Many people who are stuck with old ways of thinking are trying to lead us out of our current crises.

At the same time, we have these emerging groups of people around the world who are beginning to understand our shared humanity. They understand that what happens to you affects me, and it’s a very interconnected world. I find this mentality is more prevalent in the younger generation than the older generation.

I expect we will see a new, emergent leadership that works to solve these issues. People are thinking about how we can solve problems and use technology to address challenges in new, novel ways. The old top-down, hierarchical model of decision-making is gone. There are still pockets of people, especially men, who are holding on to that old system, but these are the holdouts. You should pay attention to this new leadership trend because the solutions that we need for our planet are going to emerge from this next generation of leaders.

We at Breakthrough believe this is going to be the generation that finally makes violence against women and girls unacceptable. This is going to be the generation that will shift these old norms, attitudes and values and push society to see one another as human beings that deserve respect. This new generation will really think about how we can build a society, an economy and a world where human dignity is central to how we operate and more forward.