Mallika Dutt found help in her work to end violence against women. She recruited men.

Breakthrough, the human rights organization she created, calls on people, particularly boys and men, to stop domestic violence wherever they see it.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Mallika Dutt – founder, president, and chief executive officer of Breakthrough – at the organization’s Manhattan office.

Every morning Mallika Dutt toys with the figurines on the windowsill in her East Harlem apartment.

“My windowsill has become this kind of enchanted garden [with] all these creatures and these animals and these elves and these fairies and these dancers,” she says. “I change the configurations every day, and I look at my little enchanted forest, and I think ‘This is what the world could look like. This is what we could be.’ ”

It’s a rare moment of wistfulness, and Ms. Dutt waves it off. But it’s clear that working at the helm of Breakthrough, the human rights organization she created in 2000, even when there are much-deserved accolades for its innovative work on violence against women and girls, takes a toll.

Four years earlier, I had seen Dutt on a stage at Bioneers, an environmental and social justice conference in northern California. She had been invited to share Breakthrough’s new campaign, Bell Bajao, Hindi for “Ring the Bell.” It called on people, particularly boys and men, to interrupt domestic violence wherever and whenever they witnessed it.

The campaign was launched in Dutt’s home country of India, and she spoke with passion and urgency about inviting men to step in. The crowd was mesmerized, and, when Dutt finished, they rose to their feet, clapping thunderous support.

“Bell Bajao went through the roof,” Dutt says. It won close to 50 awards. It reached more than 130 million people via television, mass media, and “video vans,” which traveled the country.

Violence against women became a story line on three popular Bollywood soap operas. “Bell Bajao” was the answer to a question on India’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” TV program. It was picked up in China, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Canada, among other countries.

But most important, Dutt says, “A lot of men came up to us and said it’s the first time [they’ve] ever been invited into this conversation as part of the solution.”
It’s exactly what Bell Bajao had been created to do. Indeed, it was what Breakthrough had been created to do – use media, arts, and technology to change cultural norms.

“When I started Breakthrough 13 years ago, everybody thought I was insane,” says Dutt, sitting behind her desk in New York City flanked by books that include Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.”

Breakthrough was unconventional. But so, from all accounts, is Dutt.

Her gift is “naming a future that we could have,” says Nina Simons, president and cofounder of Bioneers. “I find myself increasingly respectful of people who set seemingly unreasonable goals.”

Her ideas have always been a bit “out there,” says Charlotte Bunch, founder and former director of the Center for Global Women’s Leadership at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., for whom Dutt worked as a summer intern while attending Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

Dutt was assigned to her, Ms. Bunch says, because “I think they thought I was the only one who could handle her.” Even then, she says, “What Mallika understood was that [human rights] issues needed to be translated into a cultural context so that even those people who aren’t interested can be reached.”

Dutt’s determination had already vaulted her from a childhood in Calcutta, India, where she had balked at the prescribed role her family and culture planned for her, to Mount Holyoke on a scholarship. She followed that with a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University and a law degree from New York University.

The idea for Breakthrough came to Dutt while she was working in India as the Ford Foundation’s human rights program director. She was frustrated that “the whole human rights paradigm was predicated on after the fact: You dealt with abuse after it had happened.” She likens it to “having the tap on..., and you’re dealing with it by grabbing buckets.”

Breakthrough was about turning the tap off.

Dutt expressed her frustration – and her idea – to Joanne Sandler, who was working as deputy executive director at UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, and who had known Dutt since she was 18 (“a firebrand,” Ms. Sandler recalls). But who would fund her idea? Dutt asked.

Sandler made some calls.

Dutt began by enlisting an Indian pop singer to perform a music video in which a woman walks out of a domestic violence situation and becomes a truck driver.

“That was the experiment,” Dutt says. “Everybody thought I was completely nuts.” In August 2000, Virgin Records agreed to promote it.

“It became like everything you would dream about,” she says. “People fell in love with this ... because it told the story from a liberated place.” For six months after its release, “we were all in the mainstream media talking about women’s rights and violence against women.”  

Her idea of using pop culture to change thinking was not so crazy after all. She left the Ford Foundation to dedicate herself full time to Breakthrough, opening offices in both India and the United States.

In the US, Breakthrough began work on the issues of detention and deportation of immigrant women. But just a year after it was incorporated, and as Dutt was about to board a plane from India to the US in 2001, the twin towers fell in New York. Dutt returned to the US to find that an “almost immediate attack started, first on Southeast Asians and Muslims and then on the whole immigrant community.”

Breakthrough struggled to get its partners involved in its work with immigrant women in the US. It had to innovate.

“What we had to do,” she says, “was a lot more short video stories, working with local performance artists, more theater and comedy and hip-hop and YouTube.... We were really part of the wave of [new] technology. Pioneers.”

In India, Breakthrough continued to address violence against women and girls. Then, five years ago, the women doing on-the-ground work raised a question: What about men?

“If you don’t [reach] the men, then nothing is really going to change,” Dutt says. She went to Breakthrough’s pro bono ad agency, Ogilvy and Mather in Mumbai, with this question: How do you get men to challenge other men?

Bell Bajao was the answer.

“It was a big learning experience,” she says. Today the idea of pulling in men continues to inspire Breakthrough’s work.

Dutt has attracted some high-profile male spokespeople, including actor Patrick Stewart, who in 2013 shared his story of being a boy who watched his father abuse his mother.

“I do what I do in my mother’s name because I couldn’t help her then,” he said.

Mr. Stewart’s story was shared on social media (“Twitter went nuts!” Dutt says) and opened the door for men to write to Breakthrough. “Many said it was the first time they’d told their story.” Making themselves vulnerable in that way was a “milestone,” she says.

Supporter Dean Obeidallah, a comedian and contributor to The Daily Beast, says that Dutt and Breakthrough give people “the next step, a concrete way to make a difference.”

That “concrete way” is clear in Breakthrough’s latest US campaign, recently featured at Daytona International Speedway’s iconic NASCAR races. There on the video scoreboard was an ad urging racegoers to #BeThatGuy. In the ad, “that guy” criticizes his friend when he tries to slap a waitress’s behind. “It’s about men holding men accountable,” says Breakthrough’s communications director, Lynn Harris.

Dutt continues to get a clearer idea of how men can be involved. “I’m really understanding that there has to be a shared humanity and shared vision...,” she says. “Men can’t simply be seen as the instruments of ending the violence.”

They have to be co-creators of solutions.

Says Dutt: “This world that I want to live in – my enchanted forest – has to bring everyone along.”

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How to take action

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Below are groups selected by UniversalGiving that help women and girls:

Greenheart Travel provides immersive experiences that change lives. Take action: Assist with education projects for disadvantaged children in India.

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Rural Communities Empowerment Center provides resources and services to achieve high levels of literacy in rural communities in Ghana. Take action: Help empower an adolescent girl.

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