21 Leaders 2016 – Meet Three Powerhouses Who Get the Word Out

Mallika Dutt

Women’s eNews

Tricia Taormina


While waiting at a Calcutta hospital in 1985, Mallika Dutt noticed something strange about the women’s unit: it was full of burn victims.

Dutt, who grew up in India and was a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College at the time, says that moment solidified her commitment to women’s rights.

“The fact that an entire women’s unit could be full of burn victims without it being declared a national emergency just stayed with me,” she said.

She is best known for her ground-breaking use of media to make change happen. In 1989, Mallika Dutt co-founded Sakhi for South Asian Women, a nonprofit dedicated to ending domestic violence by helping women in New York’s large South Asian immigrant population. In the early part of her career, she also served as the associate director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University. Later, she worked as a program officer for human rights and social justice in the Ford Foundation’s Delhi office.

When she returned to work in India after years in the United States, she realized that human rights advocacy often felt like an “echo chamber of the same people having the same conversations.” Another issue she encountered was the reality that violence against women is mostly dealt with retroactively rather than by establishing prevention strategies.

“We weren’t really getting to a broader community,” she said. She turned to pop culture.

In 2000, Mallika Dutt produced the music video ” Mann ke Manjeere” (in Hindi, “Rhythm of the Mind”) and an album of the same name featuring five songs about women’s rights. The music video told the true story of Shameem Pathan, a woman who became a truck driver to support herself and her child after leaving an abusive husband.

The success of the music video and the album led Mallika Dutt to found Breakthrough— with the goal of making violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable.

One of Breakthrough’s multimedia campaigns in India used street theater, bus ads and school-based workshops to help more than 700,000 people identify and respond to sexual harassment. The organization estimates that 90 percent of women and girls in India experience harassment.

In the United States, Breakthrough has begun to work with fraternity members and allies to openly discuss the elements of the campus rape culture and to challenge university presidents to end the campus rape culture as part of their legacy.

Dutt says that Breakthrough’s prevention strategy — shifting attitudes, engaging men and boys and using technology — has gained global traction.

“I really believe that we’re at a moment in history where we could see the tipping point,” she said, acknowledging that while she believes violence against women is becoming more widespread, the movement to stop it is getting stronger.

“It feels within reach.”

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