Global Conversations With: Mallika Dutt, Founder of Breakthrough

Aesha Desai, for GPA -- With a focus on the changing media landscape, Mallika Dutt's human rights organization, Breakthrough, has reached millions in her native India with a message of advocacy for women. Inspired by her own childhood in India, she has come to find that our world is changing more rapidly than we know and that it is up to every individual to make sure that this change will be for the better. 

Breakthrough was just awarded the University of Pennsylvania’s 2014 Barry and Marie Lipman Family Prize. How do you define Breakthrough?

Breakthrough is a global human rights organization with a mission to transform gender norms that lead to violence against women. We want to build a generation of leaders which makes violence against women and girls unacceptable. For Breakthrough, the idea and the vision of human rights is that everyone on this planet lives with dignity, equality and justice. In order for that to happen, we have to deal with the largest human rights pandemic: violence against women.

Breakthrough’s “Bell Bajao” video is a clear call to action. Can you explain the meaning?

One of the things that Breakthrough believes is that violence against women and girls is everyone’s business. Everyone has to own the solutions and really participate to make changes. In the past, a lot of the work addressing violence focused on providing services and protection to women after they have been abused. It’s time to look at prevention and figure out how to stop this from happening.

Based on a lot of the work we have done on the community level and with women from India, we realized that at the end of the day, we needed to reach men, that they are more likely to abuse women. We created a campaign called “Bell Bajao” which means “ring the bell” and called on men to stand up against domestic violence. We created six ads that show men in different scenarios when they hear their neighbor beating his wife. In all of these scenarios they go and ring the bell and interrupt the violence. That campaign became incredibly popular in India and it reached 130 million people. We also worked at the community level with people from two states, through leadership development and different kinds of community engagement tools. Then that campaign got adapted to several others countries and ended up becoming global.

Ultimately, what do you hope will come from the “Bell Bajao” video? 

We have gotten a lot of stories of people who are ringing the door bells. I think the idea is to communicate the idea that men need to be a part of the solution and that ringing the doorbell is a metaphor for interruption. You can ring the bell in different ways. You can talk to a friend who’s being abusive and you can help someone access resources. You can makes sure your own daughter, if she is in a situation like that, is able to come home. You can make sure you raise your son differently. For us, “Bell Bajao” and ringing the bell is both a literal and a metaphorical action that we want to the world to be taking.

How many countries does Breakthrough reach?

Breakthrough is based in India and the United States. In the United States we are also focused on building male leadership to challenge violence against women as well as challenging pop culture representations of women. In India, we work on issues like early marriage, domestic violence and sexual assault. We also work in partnership with organizations in Nepal, Bangladesh, South Africa, Brazil and Sweden, and other parts of the world.

What are some things you would like to use Philadelphia as a platform for?

Breakthrough’s tagline is “human rights begin with you.” We see every individual in Philadelphia and on this planet as advocates for change. The Philadelphia experience for us happened because of the Lipman Prize. It’s been a fantastic opportunity for us to develop partnership with students here and to enter a whole ecosystem of people who can be a part of the Breakthrough generation to make violence against women and girls unacceptable. While here, we met with several people who are working on the issue of violence against women and girls in Philadelphia, so we are looking towards possible partnerships with them.

What is your most treasured experience in your work with human rights and social justice?

I have had a really wonderful 30 years doing work in human rights. There are so many treasured moments. I think one of the most exciting moments for me was when the global women's movement came together around the United Nations World Conferences held in Vienna on human rights. A lot of people look at me today and say, “Haven’t women’s rights always been human rights?” The reality is that the word “human” never really incorporated women. It was always about men. If you look at human rights in the past, issues that human rights organizations or governments focused on, what was happening to women was not present on the table. That moment when women from all around the world came together and demanded to have their humanity recognized on the same level as men’s, that was a very exciting time for me. Being at the Beijing Conference for Women’s Rights, with thousands of women from literally the tiniest little island in Banua to Germany, to every single country from Africa and Asia, Greenland, America, Latin America, it was an opportunity to realize that in all of our diversity, in all of the differences among us, we had a shared vision, a shared mission, a shared reality. That was the moment when I understood that we always have to be particular and recognize our difference and always understand how interconnected we are.

At the ceremony for your Lipman Prize, you said, “We have never needed ourselves more. We need to reclaim our destiny.” Can you expand on that?

I think we are at the moment on our planet when all of the old structures are falling apart. The old economic structures don’t really work anymore in terms of jobs and in terms of the extreme gap of income inequality. The political system that we have doesn’t really work anymore. There are more and more environmental catastrophes and climate change issue and we really do have political leadership, economic leadership and corporate leadership that doesn’t know what to do.

I feel that at this moment in the planet’s history, we really need to be thinking differently about not just survival, but how we can thrive. What I have observed is that while everything around us is falling apart, there is an increasing sense of our interconnectedness. More of us are coming to realize that our destinies are intertwined. What I do, in whichever part of the world I am, has a connection or an impact to you even if you are very far away. I see that younger people especially understand that interconnectedness, perhaps because of social media, perhaps because of technology, perhaps because some of us who have been doing political organizing have had some influence on their generation. I really think the time has come for us to reclaim our destinies in terms of being people who find creative and amazing ways of living and being together on this planet.

What makes you a powerful, intelligent, creative, and innovative woman?

I think that some of it is from my upbringing in a joint family in India. I lived with my grandparents, my uncle and aunt and their two sons, my parents and my brothers. I grew up in a home with three boys and I was the only female grandchild, the third in the hierarchy in the family. As a kid, I was running around with the boys, playing hide and seek or cricket and I was often faster than my brothers.

When we would play games they would try to relegate me and say, “Stay home and cook!” I would say, “No! You stay home and cook!” I think my idea of what I was supposed to be doing as a girl was always in the context of what I was doing with the boys. When I got older, I began to realize that I was not going to be a part of the family business, but the boys were going to be. Because I was a girl, I was supposedly going to get married and go off somewhere else. My mother and my grandmother would sometimes tell me when I got married, then I would be in my own house. These statements would always upset me because I would wonder, “Where am I now? Isn’t this my own home?” That sense of never really belonging and knowing that there were things that I would not have access to because I was a girl, I think that started to really bug me.

Very early on when I was a teenager, I decided to stand on my own two feet. I was going to make sure I would have my own home, not my husband’s home, not my father’s home, not anybody else’s home. I really got into the idea of studying in the United States and I got it all together. This was in the early ‘80s, when there weren’t that many Indian students studying abroad. I ended up at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, which was an absolutely fantastic experience. At college the whole idea of being a woman and doing anything you wanted to do, it kind of gave me a lot of nurturing and feminine traits. I think I was a feminist the moment I popped out of my mom, really. Mount Holyoke gave me the tools, the language and constructs to think big and out of the box and the motivation to do whatever I chose to do. That’s sort of the trajectory that got me where I am.