A Fighter for Women Who Enlists Men in the Cause


Sally Kohn


In early 2015, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio established a groundbreaking Commission on Gender Equity. Among the 17 new appointees, all with experience advocating for women and girls, one was a standout: Mallika Dutt, best known for her work in New York and globally, working not only with women but men. She’s a visionary choice for the commission, bringing her diverse experiences and perspectives from around the globe to help spread gender equity in the global city of New York. And, as she is perhaps uniquely qualified to do, seeing New York as a laboratory for global change.

As the founder and CEO of Breakthrough, an organization that uses culture change around the world to help make violence and discrimination against women and girls unacceptable, Dutt has already brought her signature style to the United States. With Breakthrough, Dutt created Be That Guy, a campaign to enlist American fraternity members and sports fans to speak out against misogyny, and Dudes Against Violence Against Women, an annual comedy show at New York’s Gotham Comedy Club. “Locally and globally, we stand at a tipping point where deep culture change is within our grasp, and I believe that New York—as always—can lead the way,” says Dutt about her new role. “Together, we can build a city–and a world–where homes and streets are safe, relationships are healthy, and opportunity is equal for all.” It’s a world whose roots Dutt first envisioned back in India, her birthplace.

For Dutt, 53, the headlines about violence against women in India are not as shocking as they are to much of the world. In the most notorious case of the last five years, a 23-year-old female physiotherapy student was brutally gang raped on a bus as it drove around New Delhi in December 2012. She was eventually dumped by the side of the road and died 13 days later from her injuries. Decades of anger about violence against women and government failure to address it erupted into protests across the country. And suddenly rape in India was an international story, with every new incident making global headlines. In the spring of 2013, two young girls — one four years old, the other five—were kidnapped and raped; the four-year-old died soon after. In June of that year, a 30-year-old American woman was gang raped by a group of young men who offered her a ride back to her guesthouse when she couldn’t find a rickshaw taxi. This year, an Uber driver in New Delhi went on trial for allegedly raping a woman who testified she had booked the car in order to get home safely; and in January, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, two policemen were arrested for allegedly abducting and raping a teenager. In 2013 six men were convicted of rape and murder in the case of the girl on the bus. One, the bus driver, died in his cell later that year; police said he hanged himself but the man’s family claimed he’d been killed. The youngest received a juvenile sentence and in September 2013 the remaining four, who had confessed, were sentenced to death. Last year, the four recanted their confessions, claiming police torture, and their executions have been stayed while they appeal.

After all this, many women in America began to register India as newly dangerous. But Mallika Dutt, who was born and grew up in Kolkata, knew that danger first-hand, even in her own childhood.

It’s not hard to imagine Dutt as a little girl; even now, with her petite frame and high energy, she could easily blend into a crowd of junior-high students. As a child, she lived in Kolkata in the sort of extended household common among Indian families. In a three-story home, one floor was occupied by Dutt, her parents and brother; her uncle lived on another floor with his wife and two children; her father’s parents lived on the third. Like all the households in her community, it was organized around a patriarchal model. Dutt describes her paternal grandmother as “a really fierce woman”—a social worker engaged in her community, a recognized leader—but at the same time an enforcer of traditional gender roles inside the home. It was Dutt’s grandmother who decided that the family home would only be inherited by Dutt’s brother and male cousins. As the only female grandchild, Dutt was expected to stay inside and learn to cook. Her father introduced young Mallika to literature and art and encouraged her to excel in school. At the same time, Dutt saw her mother, once a promising musician and dancer, abandon her own ambitions to marry and raise children. This paradox of possibility and opportunity constantly running into the wall of patriarchy and tradition defined Dutt’s childhood.

Dutt also saw firsthand the worst consequences of patriarchy. She says that a male domestic worker sexually abused her when she was just seven years old, luring her to a remote part of the family home where he touched her vagina and forced her to touch his penis. On one occasion he tried to rape her, but Dutt ran off and she never told anyone about the incident. Though by her account she was a “tough little girl,” like many in the same situation she was afraid to let her family know what had happened. “I remember trying to tell my grandmom once,” says Dutt, “but I didn’t have the words. I just said, ‘He’s a bad man.’” After a few months, the worker left and the abuse ended. It was only years later that Dutt found out friends from around the world had had similar childhood experiences, and realized that instances of molestation by household workers or male relatives were as frighteningly common as rape and domestic abuse.

In her own family, “My dad had a bad temper,” says Dutt, “so we all tiptoed around him.” In one example, Dutt remembers an evening at the dinner table. “There wasn’t enough salt or something was wrong with one of the dishes he’d been served. And my dad just picked up the plate and threw it across the room.” Dutt pauses and lowers her head before taking a deep breath and continuing. “I remember,” she says, “the plate flying across the room and the food splattering everywhere.” Though such incidents weren’t common in her home, says Dutt, she knew they could happen at any time and so “there was this constant general tension.”

At the same time, she says, “I also greatly loved and admired my father.” Late at night, she would often climb up into her parents’ bed and curl up at their feet as everyone slept in peace.

“My parent’s bedroom door opened out into our living room,” says Dutt. At times when her father was yelling at her mother, “I can remember standing there, listening outside their big wooden door, feeling like I needed to do something—but not really knowing what.” It didn’t occur to her to speak up, to say anything. What she did know, even then, was that she wanted something different. “This is never going to be my life,” she told herself. “This is not happening to me!”

For Dutt, the path to a different life was attending college abroad. For Indians of her class in the 1980s, that meant one of only two countries, the United Kingdom or the United States. Dutt eliminated the UK “because they had colonized us.” She had a friend whose sister was studying at Wellesley, so the U.S. became Dutt’s goal. She’d heard about the Seven Sisters so she decided to apply to four of them. But producing the necessary paperwork in those computer-less times required a huge effort. “You just had to go and sit at these little cubbyhole kinds of places where there were men with typewriters,” says Dutt. “You’d give the man the essay you’d written by hand, then you’d sit there while he typed it for you. With carbon copies!”

Dutt knew she would go to the college that gave her the biggest scholarship. That landed her at Mount Holyoke in western Massachusetts, from which she graduated in 1983. Although she returned to India for summer vacations, she lived most of each year at college, and along the way she came to think of the United States as her home.

Though Dutt describes her feminism as almost baked into her because of her childhood experiences, college introduced her to a deep well of feminist theory and scholarship as well as to peers from around the country and the globe, and she emerged with passionate desire to see changes in the family and society. “Mount Holyoke was a revolutionary, life-changing experience for me,” says Dutt, who received an honorary doctorate from the school in 2012. Soon after graduation she earned a masters in international affairs from Columbia and a law degree from New York University; after clocking a couple of years at a law firm, she turned her focus to philanthropy and human rights. In 1996, Dutt found herself, at 34, working for the Ford Foundation and living back in India for the first time since her youth.

As she traveled across the country looking to identify human rights groups that Ford could fund, Dutt expected to see an India that had dramatically evolved in terms of the safety and equality of women. But she found that little had changed. The Indian parliament had passed laws about violence and gender equity, but they weren’t improving women’s lives on the ground. For Dutt, this echoed a similar frustration that she’d felt in the U.S.—that for everything she and other activists were doing, women were still being beaten, abused and raped every single day in unimaginable numbers.

Dutt tells the story of staying in a public hospital in Mumbai in 1985 with a friend who had been in a car accident. “Most of the patients who were in the women’s ward had been set on fire because of dowry disputes,” she recalls. “The place was so full, they had to put mattresses on the floor. I spent two nights in the ward—not taking care of my friend but chasing away the giant rats that were trying to nibble on these women lying in agony on the ground.” The memory of those women, of their suffering, is seared in her brain. “I was sick and tired of dealing with violence against womenafter the fact—the burns, the broken bones, the bruises, the pain,” Dutt says. “I wanted to change the entire story.”

In 2000, Dutt left the Ford Foundation and started the organization Breakthrough to combat violence against women in India, the United States and worldwide. And she immediately had an idea for one of the tools she wanted to use. From her mother she’d inherited a love of music; in fact, she says with a laugh, “I’d had all these dreams of cutting an album.” She never did—but in music she found her first breakthrough. She knew that changing the story of violence against women required more than just changing laws and policy—she’d need to change the very culture that permits or even encourages such violence. The question was how, especially in a country as diverse as India. “There are more than 20 official languages,” says Dutt. “There are different foods, art forms, music, culture, and then there are different castes”—a somewhat haphazard mix resulting from British imperialism. Trying to figure out what these billion people might all have in common, she started to think about what Indians actually read and watch and do every day. The answer that came to her: Bollywood music.

“Certain hit songs are known by pretty much every Indian, whether they are literate, not literate, whether they live in a rural area, whether they have access to electricity or not,” says Dutt. The same Bollywood songs are everywhere, playing in shops, at weddings, even at funerals. “You will hear street kids in the slums of Bombay singing the same song as the street kids in some faraway village,” she says. She decided to channel that universal passion for music to power her cause.

Dutt, who had studied the classical music of India in school, now assembled some friends who were professional musicians. They wrote a song and set it to the music of a sitar and a tabla. Then Dutt rented a recording studio and produced a demo tape that she then shopped around the record labels in Mumbai.

“They thought the music was too earnest…and they were right,” Dutt says, rolling her eyes. The song was a complex metaphor about violence as pollution, set to a languid tempo. One executive suggested Dutt use it in a government public service announcement—not exactly the advice you give about a potential mega-hit. “If this is going to work,” Dutt says the music experts told her, “you need to create the Indian version of the Spice Girls.”

She looked for women in the music business who could help her do just that, but couldn’t find any with whom she could work. So Dutt ended up collaborating for a year with a male composer, Shantanu Moitra, and a male songwriter, Prasoon Joshi. The three created an album, Mann ke Manjeeré: An Album of Women’s Dreams, on which the music video for the lead track was inspired by the true story of a woman who took her young daughter and escaped an abusive relationship by becoming a truck driver. Dutt and her collaborators turned that story into a music video, in which we watch the woman assertively shifting gears in a massive truck as her daughter happily bounces around in the passenger seat. Along the road they pick up other women, who pile into the flatbed of the truck singing and dancing. Their chorus: “My heart is now singing. I have begun to believe in myself.” For India, the lyrics and imagery were groundbreaking. And the music, while not Beyoncé, is as catchy as any Bollywood hit.

The song was a smash. “Top 10 for six months!” beams Dutt. The video won the 2001 National Screen Award, India’s equivalent of the Grammies, and one of the country’s leading paper, The Hindu, wrote, “Mann ke Manjeeré has made a breakthrough by claiming public space for women’s aspirations.” And Dutt was just beginning.

By 2008 she had launched Breakthrough campaigns to increase the awareness of HIV among women; in the process, her organization also trained thousands of women and girls to advocate for themselves and stand up to violence. At that time Dutt was still following the traditional model of domestic violence prevention, by training and organizing primarily women and girls. “These women would come to us and say, ‘We love our fathers and husbands and brothers. We want to help them change, and stop the violence,’” says Dutt.

This is where Dutt had her second big breakthrough: She would incorporate men into the struggle. In this, her inspiration was her father. Yes, she admits, the man had a temper—but he was also the one who had imbued in her a sense of personal power and possibility. Yet through most of the 1980s and 1990s, the women’s movement didn’t include male activists and allies—not in India, not anywhere. “Men were always the perpetrators, the bad guys,” says Dutt. She recalled her successful collaboration with Moitra and Joshi. “Suddenly, I’m listening to these brilliant men and hearing about how they think about violence, how they struggle with it, how violence has affected their own lives,” she says. The experience opened Dutt’s eyes to seeing men as complex and complicated and ultimately filled with the potential for doing good. They were not just part of the problem, they were also part of the solution.

Dutt’s new campaign, she decided, would engage men as leaders in ending domestic violence in India. The idea was not to paint men as women’s only possible saviors from patriarchy, but to encourage men to be accountable for stopping violence. In this way, Bell Bajao was born.

Bell Bajao, Hindi for “ring the bell,” is a multi-media campaign that encourages men to interrupt domestic violence when it is happening by literally and metaphorically ringing the bell at the doors of their neighbors. In one Bell Bajao ad, a man overhears a neighbor beating his wife. He reluctantly climbs the stairs to his neighbor’s apartment. He stops in front of the door, wipes his brow, then rings the bell. The noises stop. The door opens to reveal the abusive husband. “May I use your phone?” the interrupting neighbor asks. Perhaps a second passes before we hear a ring and see the man’s cell phone light up in his shirt pocket, obviously working just fine. He picks up the phone and answers it, casting a knowing look at the abusive husband, who looks away, ashamed.

Airing on nationwide television and in roaming video vans that Breakthrough drives through the rural villages of India, Bell Bajao to date has reached more than 130 million people and inspired many men to take active steps to stop violence. Rajan (who, like many Indians, does not have a last name), from the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka, first saw the Bell Bajao ads in 2009 when he was 13. A few months later, Rajan told Breakthrough staff, “When I heard noises from a couple in my neighborhood, I instantly remembered Bell Bajao—and I screamed, ‘Snake! Snake!’” Rajan’s intervention had an impact: “Hearing my voice, the husband stopped beating his wife and started looking for the snake. I was so happy that I had stopped violence.”

In the sincerest form of flattery, the campaign spawned copycats, with similar videos popping up in China, Canada, Vietnam and elsewhere. Breakthrough eventually turned “Ring the Bell” into a global campaign, inviting one million men to make one million promises worldwide to help end violence against women. Celebrities such as Patrick Stewart, Virgin Airways founder Richard Branson and 70-year-old Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan supported the campaign. It was also embraced by the Clinton Global Initiative, which helped spread it internationally. “Mallika Dutt and her organization, Breakthrough, have shown how to use the power of communication for women’s empowerment and gender equality,” says Lakshmi Puri, the assistant secretary general of UN Women.

In addition to starting initiatives like Be That Guy, reaching frat brothers and sports fan, and the Dudes Against Violence Against Women comedy show, Dutt and Breakthrough have also recently launched creative campaigns including Deport The Statue to raise awareness about immigrant women’s rights with a satirical campaign to deport the Statue of Liberty; and#NoMayPac, a social media campaign to boycott Pay-Per-View boxing matches featuring repeat domestic violence offender Floyd Mayweather.

Through her vision and work, Mallika Dutt is helping transform the lives of millions of women and girls. But what about healing and transforming her own past?

“We are all complex, fucked up, dysfunctional, amazing, creative, wonderful beings,” says Dutt, reflecting on her life. What some would see as a contradiction—Dutt saying she was affected by her father’s temper but also inspired by his fierceness—she sees as the sort of dualism that is inherent in all patriarchal cultures.

Over a decade ago, when Dutt’s music video premiered, she was sitting on a panel with the songwriter and musicians at a five-star hotel filled with prominent Indians from the worlds of business, the arts and the media. Suddenly the whole room was distracted by the muffled but unmistakable sound of sobbing. It was coming from somewhere in the audience. The entire room turned to look. The person crying was Dutt’s father, his long white kurta and gray beard drenched with his tears. That little girl who stood outside her parents’ door not knowing what to do was now helping young women—and men—to find their voices. And her father was now the one speechless.

Sally Kohn is a CNN political commentator and a columnist for the Daily Beast. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, New York Magazine, Time and More.

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