What is Breakthrough?

Breakthrough is a global human rights organization working to drive the culture change we need to make violence and discrimination unacceptable and build a world where all people can reach their full potential. Our entry points: violence and discrimination against women and girls—and all the violence driven by limiting, damaging gender norms that hold us all back. These are the cultural norms that dictate certain “right” ways to be a man or a woman, that position men and “male” traits as superior to women and “female,” and that underly the way institutions are structured and individuals interact. (Even when we tell a boy not to “throw like a girl” we’re saying there’s one way to be “like a boy”—and saying girls are “less than,” even a threat.) Only when we shift those assumptions and behaviors, norms and attitudes, will we all treat each other as fully human—not superior or inferior, not one “type” or another”—and will we all be free to be who we need to be.

Since 2000 (see our timeline!) we have given people the tools to make all that happen: to take action in their own worlds to challenge the status quo and inspire others to do the same. Together, we can form a critical mass—the Breakthrough Generation—and trigger the tipping point we need and build the world we want to live in. For more info, read more about us and our mission.


Why are you called “Breakthrough”?

Breakthrough is a noun and an adjective that reflects the innovative ways we break through barriers to deliver irreversible culture change. It captures:

  • our vision of a world in which norms and values derived from power over others and dominance are transformed into a global culture in which mutual respect and dignity are the order of the day.
  • our ambitious, audacious approach to behavior and culture change
  • the transformation we trigger in individuals when we inspire them to hold themselves accountable and act for change
  • the Breakthrough Generation: the generation whose collective action will make violence against women and all inequalities unacceptable, transforming the world once and for all.


What is culture? What is “culture change”?

  • Culture is “the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual, and emotional features of society or a social group…it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions, and beliefs” (UNESCO).
  • Culture is “the realm of ideas, images, and stories—the narrative in which we are immersed every day. It is where people make sense of the world, where ideas are introduced, values are inculcated, and emotions are attached to concrete change” (Jeff Chang and Brian Komar).
  • Culture, according to Sally Engle Merry, is also “historically produced rather than static…and constructed through human action.”

Culture shapes who we are and how we live. But we create culture. So working powerfully and collectively, using feet-on-ground action and elements of culture itself, we have the power to shape it—into an embodiment of the values of dignity, equality, and justice.


How does culture change apply to violence against women—and discrimination in general?

Anti-violence laws and policies are essential, but not enough. Societal norms label domestic violence a “private matter,” assign blame for rape to a woman or her skirt, shrug off violence by saying “boys will be boys.” More broadly, societal norms also position one set of people or traits over others, resulting in discrimination both overt and invisible. Changing those attitudes and assumptions means not just improving societal response to violence, but making gender-based violence—and all inequality—socially unacceptable, reducing and preventing it once and for all.


What is Breakthrough’s vision of human rights?

Violence and discrimination against women and girls—the largest global human rights pandemic—is our entry point. Our ultimate goal is to cultivate civil societies invested in human rights values. We envision a global culture where all human rights are respected and fulfilled. We work toward a world in which we all view one another as human. In this world, no one is abused, poor, marginalized, or oppressed. In this world, individuals and communities participate fully in the processes and policies, diversity and pluralism, that ensure their well-being.


Why do you say “Human rights start with you”?

Human rights are part of our everyday lives. They are not only about oppression in faraway lands, or only about victimization and abuse. They are intrinsic to how we treat each other in our homes, families, and communities; they are about recognizing and taking responsibility for the power and privilege we do have. While government agencies and human rights laws are necessary and responsible for promoting and protecting human rights, so is each one of us. And so are corporations, religious leaders and institutions, entertainers, and more.

As Eleanor Roosevelt famously said: Where, after all, do human rights begin? In small places, close to home…the world of the individual person: the neighborhood, school, or college; the factory, farm, or office…Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, opportunity, and dignity. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”


How does Breakthrough drive culture change?

We use a rigorous, integrated combination of strategies to reach people where they are and inspire transformative action in the world around them.

  • We use culture to change culture. We use traditional media, new media, pop culture, and other forms of cultural expression to reach people—especially new audiences—where they are, spark public engagement, change social norms, and influence the public agenda through a human rights lens.
  • We forge game-changing strategic partnerships with a wide range of players in government, civil society, entertainment, and more, to reach maximum scale and impact.
  • We provide leadership development and skill-building to strengthen the ability of young people, community leaders, and institutions to act for change in their own spheres and trigger a multiplier effect.
  • We conduct and share extensive research to optimize our impact and collaborate with allies.
  • We trigger a multiplier effect: the individuals and institutions we reach become messengers themselves, inspiring others to act and planting fast-growing seeds for massive, meaningful, and unstoppable change. This is the critical mass of social change actors with the power to deliver a global tipping point and usher in a worldwide culture of human rights.


What’s an “intersectional” approach?

Human rights need to be understood in relation to the fact that none of us has one finite or fixed identity. For example, an female victim of violence, or a male college student, may belong to a majority or minority community, live in the city or country, be rich or poor, straight or LGBTQ, undocumented or a U.S. citizen. Effective human rights strategies take into account the fact that everyone’s access to rights and privileges shift with identity and context.


Do you have one main office?

No. Our operational style is different from traditional international groups with a more hierarchical “headquarters” and “field office” structure. Our local, national, regional, and global work emerges out of our two centers in the world’s two largest democracies: in New York, New York, and New Delhi, India. (We also have state offices in Ranchi, Lucknow and Mangalore.) The country offices collaborate on organizational strategy and international/global programming. Based on a shared human rights agenda and signature approach, each office also determines culturally and politically relevant program priorities and campaigns.


Why the U.S. and India?

Breakthrough, in 2000, began its human rights and culture change programs in the U.S. and India because its founder is Indian-American. Her understanding of the political and cultural contexts in both countries enabled her to develop a unique transnational, and ultimately international and global, organizing strategy. Through partnerships, collaborations, and agenda-setting on issues of global concern, the work emerging from our two centers now has worldwide reach.


Who founded Breakthrough, when, and why?

See our timeline!