Meet the Woman Extraordinaire – Mallika Dutt



Mallika Dutt is an Indian-American human rights activist and the founder of Breakthrough.

Tell us more about yourself and what you do?
I am the President and CEO of a human rights organization called Breakthrough. We are focused on making violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable. We work through centers in India and the United States and address a whole range of issues including early marriage, sexual harassment, domestic violence unequal sex ratio, different forms that violence against women (VAW) take in the cultural contexts of both countries. Breakthrough’s strategy is to really combine media rights/art and technology along with community engagement and campaigns to try and get to the underlying norms that lead to VAW in the first place. For us, it’s really important to bring multiple constituencies together to understand that VAW is everybody’s issue and its everybody’s issues to solve as well.

What was your inspiration behind starting Breakthrough? What were some of the challenges you faced and how did you overcome them?
I was working at the Ford Foundation in India as the Humans Rights Program Officer and I was really struggling with a number of questions around how to be more effective in doing human rights works. Having worked in this field for years, I was beginning to feel that many of us were preaching to the choir all the time. You went to meetings and it was the same 500 people over and over again. So for me, the challenge became on how could we reach a larger constituency of people? I had already been working on issues of VAW for many years I started an organization called Sakhi for South Asian women in NYC, I had been a part of a global movement which was pushing for women’s right as humans rights through the UN world conferences, so I was very engaged with working on different forms of VAW at multiple levels. I was beginning to feel that we have to find a way in which we can broaden the agenda and make a broader group of people accountable for realizing women’s human rights. So I started to experiment with music as a way to engage a larger group of people. While at the Ford Foundation, I got permission to produce a music album called ‘Mann Ke Manjeere. I found this amazing group of people to work with – Prasoon JoshiShubha Mudgal and Shantanu Moitra. We put our heads together and really went through a creative process where we tried to find a way in which we could articulate what was happening to women but in a way that appealed to the hearts and minds of people and bring them into the conversation.

When we launched ‘Mann Ke Manjeere in partnership with Virgin at the end of 2000, we were very gratified as both the music video and the album did extremely well and became popular. The four of us, and Shoojit Sircar (who made the music video) and Mita Vashisht (who acted in the music video), started to do a lot of media engagement and conversations. We were doing workshops in schools, malls and bookstores. Music gave us an entry point to talk about #VAW with a much larger audience than I had ever had access to.

When I was faced with that reality, I was faced with the decision of whether or not I would pursue the idea further. So I left the Ford foundation and devoted myself to building Breakthrough and the strategy of using media, arts and technology to do culture change moving forward.

The challenges that I faced were the same that anyone faces when starting an organization. You have to establish credibility, raise resources, find staff, build infrastructure and do all of the work with limited resources. In short, all the challenges of a startup. The additional set of challenge we were faced with was, this idea of using media arts and technology to do culture change. It was a relatively new idea and was way before the advent of social media, Facebook or Twitter. In the traditional human rights arena, there was general focus on using policy advocacy and legal strategy to effect change. The world that was into media, arts and culture were not interested in working on VAW as an issue or human rights as a general issue. So straddling this world that I was trying to create ended up taking a fair amount of time and persuading people the value of it.

People often asked “Can you show us the proof that this works?”. I didn’t have it! Yes,’Mann Ke Manjeere was successful but did that actually result in change? There was no way in measuring the outcomes. I had to really persuade people to go along with this Breakthrough experiment.

What motivated you to work specifically on the issue of VAW? Any personal incidences or stories that sparked an interest in this issue?
VAW really affects every single one of us in some fashion or the other. Whether it is we having to watch our backs when walking on the street or when we are sitting on the bus with safety pins in our hands to make sure we are able to defend ourselves. I think, for most women anywhere in the world there are lots of ways it affects us, whether it is unequal inheritance or unequal pay in the office and certainly, I am no exception. Even within the family, my brother was going to join the family business and I was going to get married. So these kinds of ways in which our lives are determined by gender affect all of us.

When I got to the US to study, I was 18 years old and I ended up in a women’s college called Mount Holyoke. It was a wonderful experience for me because it gave me the vocabulary and the language to really start articulating my feminism. I was born a feminist. If any one of us stopped to think for a second, gender based discrimination affects both men and women. VAW is the largest human rights pandemic on this planet. If you think about the social, political, economic and psychological costs to women, families, and societies of this human rights pandemic, its always amazing to me that we haven’t declared a global state of emergency.

Issues like VAW stem from cultural norms that lead men and women to believe that it’s ok to treat women with disrespect. Changing deep-rooted norms (specially in the Indian context) is not only a slow process but sometimes an impossible one. The famous Bell Bajao campaign has done an excellent job at involving men to bring that change. Tell us more.
One of the most significant things that has happened for us in this work, ironically enough is the Delhi gang rape of Jyoti. The fact that VAW even became an issue that got addressed on any agenda, only happened because the women’s movement has been fighting systematically around the world at great personal cost and personal safety to put these issues on the agenda. Even when policymaking acknowledges that these are important issues, there is very little political will to implement the kind of changes that are necessary to end gender inequality. Those changes require a challenge in power relationships between men and women. It’s not that VAW just happened by accident. There are underlying cause for that and there are people who benefit, just like there is a societal cost to that kind of violence. There is something about what happened to Jyoti that created a transformation and how people were willing to receive that information. I think her experience and her death ended up being a catalyst around how people received and addressed this issue globally. So I am finding after 30 years of being in this field, a readiness of people to engage, to listen and participate. Particularly on the part of men and other kinds of institutions who before were always shying away from wanting to address the issue of VAW. I also think there has been a slight shift. People always said – if you just educate all the girls and give them a job, we will miraculously put an end to VAW. I think, it is becoming clearer and clearer to everyone that while it is important for girls to have the right to education, livelihood and health, just providing that right without changing the underlying norms is not going to put an end to VAW.

There was a real refusal to deal with what people saw as the darker side. Especially in the corporate world. It’s easier to say we want to support girls’ education than supports leadership programs for men to stop violating women.

So that’s the big shift that I have seen. It’s still very nascent. There is also a huge backlash. When you do start challenging the status quo, it’s not like people sit and say ‘that’s great’. Women are experiencing backlash. So it’s a mixed bag! I probably have more hope that we can do something about this, than I have had in previous moments of my work.

With the Bell Bajao campaign, we found a huge engagement on the part of men who said that it’s the first time [they’ve] ever been invited into this conversation as past of the solution. The campaign ended up becoming an episode in three soap operas in India, a question on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire‘, we reached 130 million people because the Ministry of Women & Child partnered with us and we won advertising agency awards. It all just really demonstrated to us that if you take a different tactic in terms of how you bring people to the table and how you invite people, they certainly can be engaged and involved in this work. It was an important way in shifting the discord. The campaign got adapted in different countries. Then, we took it global and made it the One million Men, One million-promises campaign. Men started writing in with very concrete promises with what they would and would not do.

India has a new government now; women’s safety is a part of the development agenda. What according to you should be some immediate steps that the government can take to not only ensure women’s safety but also increase accountability?
I think the first thing that the government needs to do is make it very clear to all law enforcement and the judiciary that there is zero tolerance around them not doing their jobs. They have to enforce the current laws that exists around women’s safety and that in terms of expectations around doing their job, it is non-negotiable.

The second thing is telling every single minister that women’s safety is non negotiable and that if they do anything to compromise it at an individual level, there will be consequences and they will be held accountable for it. The time for political impunity for how they treat women is over, it’s done and gone.

If the new government makes women’s safety an absolute priority in its good governance agenda and actually enforces that, it will be a huge step forward in getting us to where we need to be in terms of what’s happening to women in India.

What is your idea of an empowered woman?
I must confess, I think all women have power. I am not a big fan of the word empowered. The way I see it is that all women have power and people put obstacles to our exercise of our power. My idea of powerful women are women who have found pathways to either remove or work around the obstacles that get put in our path by society and the status quo.

One of the first people that I ever worked with, when I was in law school, was Indra Jaising. She recently retired, as the Additional Solicitor General of India, was a leading public interest lawyer in the country and really had a great impact on me in terms of a powerful women. She was a trailblazer in so many ways. She was one who did not allow the obstacles that were places in her path to prevent her from really pushing the envelope in a field that was completely male dominated and extremely patriarchal.

There are so many women that I find of that ilk. Another inspiration of mine is Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman so responsible for the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But really, I have always found inspiration around me. There are day to day women and girls who just do amazing things. If people would just get out of their way and stop with the entire BS. Women are powerful. Society, families and individuals spend a lot of time trying to undermining that power and really the task is to recognize that we all have power and what is the ecosystem that we need to create to exercise that power and thrive and contribute to a world where everyone’s human rights are respected.

Message for our readers related to women’s personal safety and the issue of violence against women.
I would simple say, recognize your power and make sure you align all of the resources,you need around you in order to exercise it.

I’ve worked with battered women for the past 30 years. When you keep getting a message over and over again that you are stupid, dumb, a second class citizen and when that message is accompanied with not only violent words but also with violence against your person, then it undermines your sense of power and sense of self. That becomes one of the greatest barriers to women who have been abused. If you are in a situation where your sense of your self is being undermined by your husband or anyone around you, find a way to go back to the core of yourself. That is yours that has not been destroyed by your circumstances and the people around you. Once you connect with that core, look around you and see who can help you reclaim that for yourself. Sometimes we are so lost in the stories that other people are telling us about who we are that we lose the sense of connection that we have to our own integrity and our own sense of who we are. If we can find a pathway to our core and figure out what we need to live in the world in a way in which we deserve, we can all create these web of inter-connections that will allow us to live on this planet with dignity.

Mallika Dutt is founder, president, and CEO of global human rights organization Breakthrough, whose mission is to end violence and discrimination against women and girls. Working out of centers in Indian and the U.S.,Breakthrough has reinvented the delivery of socio-cultural change through a mix of multimedia campaigns and community engagement.