Bringing Human Rights Home

In an interview to Spark’s Vani Viswanathan, Mallika Dutt, CEO of Breakthrough, talks about her journey with Breakthrough and one of their most successful campaigns, the Bell Bajao campaign.
Mallika Dutt is President and CEO of Breakthrough, a human rights organization in India and the U.S. promoting human dignity, gender-based equality and justice through the use of pop culture and grassroots-level education. A lawyer by training, Mallika is a member of the NY State Bar and has served on several boards and committees, including the Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Project and Asia Watch, Committee on Sex and Law – the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, and the US NGO Coordinating Committee for the UN World Conference Against Racism. In addition to founding Breakthrough, Mallika also founded Sakhi for South Asian Women, an organization based in New York aimed at ending violence against women of South Asian origin.


Mallika Dutt

1. I understand that you were involved in various philanthropic and social justice-related initiatives and organizations before you founded Breakthrough. How did these shape your desire to start Breakthrough?

My interest in social justice has been a lifelong endeavour – developed through my personal experiences as a child and given political shape as I matured. While studying for the bar exam in New York, I co-founded Sakhi for South Asian Women to break the silence around violence in our communities and fill a critical void in services. After law school, I did pro-bono work on reproductive rights and immigrant rights issues, and set up an extensive network of lawyers to represent battered women. Following that, I acted as Associate Director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership. It was a critical moment in the movement to gain recognition for women’s rights as human rights and I was lucky enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with many extraordinary women and bring it to fruition.

It was while I worked as a Program Officer for Human Rights at the Ford Foundation that I really began to dream up Breakthrough. After years of working on the inside of a global network of lawyers and policy makers, I wanted to bring the conversation on human rights to the real world.

2. India has numerous NGOs looking to raise awareness on domestic violence against women. What was the gap that you saw that you hoped Breakthrough would address?

Our use of pop culture and mass media tools in concert with grassroots mobilization strategies is certainly unique in the field, as is our work to bring men and boys on board as partners. Both are essential strategies if we are serious about ending violence against women. However, working in partnership with other NGOs and Community Based Organizations is one of Breakthrough’s core pillars – we collaborate, share tools, provide trainings and uplift other organizations doing very valuable work on the issue.

3. What goals did you set for Breakthrough? How far would you say you have come?

From the outset, our goal has been to reach beyond the usual suspects in the field and engage the public directly. Breakthrough began with the production of Mann ke Manjeeré – a music album and video that was on the Indian pop charts for six months, won multiple industry awards and managed to reach an entirely new audience on the issue of domestic violence. Ten years later, we have evolved from a single campaign to a global leader, with our innovation and impact being recognized internationally, from the Clinton Global Initiative to the Cannes International Film Festival!

4. At the same time, you would probably be able to look back and find some lessons that you learnt from your work. What would these be?

Promoting a message of dignity, equality and justice in an oversaturated media environment is an ongoing challenge, and requires a great deal of innovation and creativity on our part.

Managing our online and grassroots presence is also time- and staff-intensive – though I’m proud of what we have managed to accomplish as a small organization.

5.      And now on to one of your most successful campaigns – the Bell Bajao Campaign. Please tell us how this came about. There are two things that really fascinated me about the campaign: a) its innovative approach to raising awareness about domestic violence – the real life stories on your blog are testimony to the success of the initiative; b) the sustainable approach the campaign has adopted by training more individuals to become advocates. How did you go about successfully implementing these facets of the program?

As a campaign, Bell Bajao is an extension of Breakthrough’s mission to inspire bold action for dignity, equality and justice. We targetedmen and boys as the campaign focus in order to uplift them as partners rather than violators or bystanders. Through an iterative process with Ogilvy & Mather, we fine-tuned the campaign concept and Ogilvy produced the Public Service Announcements (PSA) pro-bono. UNIFEM and the Ministry for Women and Child Development partnered us in its dissemination, and enabled the campaign to reach 130 million through major television channels, such as STAR, SONY, ETV, NDTV and coverage in mainstream media, including Times of India.

Breakthrough’s Rights Advocates conduct large-scale community mobilization and education programs to engage youth in efforts to shift social norms and foster respect and support for women. We’ve trained more than 75,000 Rights Advocates to become peer educators in their own communities, equipping people with the knowledge and tools to take ownership of these issues and really bring them home.

6. I’m sure there have been some proud moments you’ve had from Breakthrough’s successes.  Tell us about some of them!

There have been so many over the years! The success of Mann ke Manjeeré really blew me away. I had absolutely no clout in the entertainment industry when I first started putting that project together. There were more “Who the heck is Mallika Dutt?” moments than I care to remember, but it came together beautifully and really put us on the map.

Launching What Kind of Man are You? and Is This Justice? –  our PSA campaigns addressing condom use and the stigma faced by women living with HIV/AIDS – and seeing them reach millions on mainstream networks was extraordinary. They caused quite a stir, and started a national dialogue about safe sex and HIV/AIDS-related stigma.

Recently, I’ve had the honour of announcing the global expansion of our Bell Bajao campaign while sharing a stage with former President Clinton, and brought UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on board as a Bell Bajao Global campaign ambassador. Bell Bajao also won a Silver Lion at the Cannes International Advertising Festival this summer – the campaign momentum has been incredible.

Though I would have to add that I was most impressed when Bell Bajao was featured as a question (and correct response!) on Kaun Banega Crorepati (India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?). To me, that was proof-positive that we are bringing these issues to the mainstream. 

7. How would you rate the success of the campaign in involving the youth and mobilizing grassroots-level advocates?

Breakthrough’s Rights Advocates serve as the change leaders who sustain and build out our impact – the program is critical to the work we do.

In the day to day, you can see the impact we are having as Bell Bajao has become a metaphor for fighting injustice in all its forms – people have taken ownership of the campaign and given it new meaning. We have also documented a considerable increase in awareness of the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, a 15% increase in certain areas for services for battered women, and a growing demand for better implementation of the Act.

8.  Bell Bajao has been around for over two years now. Could you tell us where you see the campaign going in 2011?

We’re taking Bell Bajao global! Building upon our success and momentum in India – we are calling on men and boys all over the world to unite in stopping violence against women.

Since launching in 2008, we have been inundated with requests to adapt our campaign materials. We are developing an online multimedia platform to enable global access to our PSAs, social networking platforms, blogs, video-sharing and user-generated content sharing spaces, as well as online training programs and educational resources. We will also collaborate with regional and country-specific partners to implement local training and community mobilization initiatives.

We are currently partnering with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his UNiTE campaign as our inaugural Global Bell Bajao champion, and are looking for other campaign champions to help us take the message forward.

9. Finally, we would love to hear any message you might have for our readers.

I would encourage your readers to take risks in pursuit of their dreams. Founding Breakthrough was a huge leap for me, but one that has changed my life forever.

Breakthrough website –

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