The Feministing Five: Mallika Dutt


Suzanna Bobadilla


Mallika Dutt (c) Anibal Martel

Global activist Mallika Dutt is passionately committed to ending violence against women and girls. As she sees it, “Gender violence against women is a human rights issue and it’s the biggest human rights pandemic on this planet. Bar none.  It is imperative that everyone understands their role and place in doing something.”

Since founding Breakthrough, a human rights organization that seeks to end global violence against women and girls, Mallika has been a pioneer on how to use media to spark worldwide change. Breakthrough’s viral videos such as the Bell Bajao and “Be That Guy” campaigns give viewers inspiration on how to take action in their communities. Her organization reaches both the United States and India, implementing a “global is local” framework that allows on the ground feedback to help direct Breakthrough’s mission and strategy.

Mallika’s work remains rooted in motivating individuals to take actionable steps in their communities. Whether it’s using social media to send young girls to school or encouraging men to intervene on when they see domestic violence in their neighborhoods, Mallika Dutt has certainly found her role in helping millions across the world. We can’t wait to see what she thinks of next!

And now without further ado, the Feministing Five with Mallika Dutt!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. Could you share an introduction of Breakthrough’s work and how it has evolved throughout the years? 

Mallika Dutt: Breakthrough is a global human rights organization, and our mission is to make discrimination against women and girls unacceptable. We’ve worked through centers in India and the United States as we’re a transnational organization. We really attempted to create an organizational structure that works from the ground up, so our notion of global is deeply rooted in the local. I think it’s important to note that it’s not as if the US is the head office and India is the field office or vice versa. We are really two centers that each have our mission to challenge violence against women.

In the last several years, our work has evolved to expand and include multiple stakeholders in addressing violence against women. For us,  it has become increasingly clear that if we are truly trying to transform the world and make violence disappear, we have to challenge and change the gender norms that currently undergird it. The whole exercise of changing culture and norm change requires not just working with women, but really ensuring that everybody understands that ending violence against women is their business. We have brought in men who are comedians to actors to government leaders. We have also brought in different kinds of partnerships from Google to airline industries. We are always looking for ways we can demonstrate at the end of the day, if we truly want to build a world where human rights are respected, those human rights have to start with you.

SB: I was really interested to see how Breakthrough’s most viral projects like “Be The Guy” in the United States and “Bell Bajao” in India place an emphatic call on men to do their part in ending violence against women. Could you share the context behind that focus? 

MD: For us at Breakthrough, the shift in emphasis to really engage men in becoming active in challenging gender violence emerged from women in the community. We had been working on connections between domestic violence and HIV AIDS in India. The women in India were the ones who said to us, “Well, this is all great, and we really appreciate all of the attention and the effort. However, in case you hadn’t noticed, there is another part of this equation. The equation includes men. If you’re not going to work with them, I don’t think we are going to be able to succeed.”

It was one of those moments when you stop and take stock of what that means and its implications. From a feminist point of view, having been in the women’s movement for so many years, there were so many principles and values that we had so deeply embedded in us, such as the focus needed to be on empowering women, creating separate and safe spaces for women, really engaging with and thinking about men within the construct of patriarchy as the aggressors and the perpetrators. When women started to raise these issues with us, it first took me personally a little bit of time to really sit and listen and think through what the implications were for how we did our work. What was clear from what they were saying was that these women wanted us to really talk to men and engage them in being part of a solution, not only to talk to them as being part of the problem.

Armed with that request, we went to Ogilvy & Mather, our pro-bono creative partner in India, and said, “We want to create a campaign that calls on men to challenge domestic violence.” We picked domestic violence because it is always seen as a private issue, something that people outside that space should not be intervening in. Actually, what happens “within the family” is one of the most unsafe spaces for women, and yet it is one of those spaces that is perceived as sacrosanct. When we went to Ogily + Mather asking how does one break down the walls between the private and the public, to create accountability for what is happening with women in the homes, it led to the create of the campaign “Bell Bajao.”

Bell Bajao calls on men to challenge domestic violence through a series of television ads that lays out stories of guys, whether it’s someone drinking tea or creating a newspaper, who hear their neighbor abusing his partner. They get up, and then go and ring the bell. In all of the scenarios there are different excuses that they use, but it’s clear from the interaction between the two men that one guy is telling the other guy that it’s not okay.

The doorbell became a metaphor for asking people to step up and interrupt cycles of violence. Additionally, by having men confronting other men, we showed that it was a problem that men had to take leadership and find solutions because, after all, how the hell was it happening in the first place?

Bell Bajao just went through the roof. Guys were telling us that it was the first time they had been invited in as a part of a solution, and secondly, we heard from both men and women that the act of ringing the bell gave them a very concrete pathway to a kind of action. The other thing that prevent people from doing anything was that they didn’t know what to do. The simplicity of just going to ring a doorbell meant that it opened up other ways that people could imagine intervening. Not only did we hear stories from hundreds of people, but the Bell Bajao campaign was included in four different soap operas, we ended up becoming a question for the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” It really penetrated into the popular consciousness. Our learnings from Bell Bajao have taught us how to create a much more systematic approach to working with men and inviting them in the movement.

SB: There seems to be more and more recognition that violence against women is an issue that ought to be tackled by multiple societal actors. However, sometimes folks with purportedly well intentions create campaigns or projects that actually reinforce systemic violence (the ‘anti-rape’ nail polish comes to mind). For those who want to want to get involved but who aren’t sure where to start, what are some suggestions you might have for them? 

MD: I’ll share with you how we have gone about this. For Breakthrough, because our tagline is “human rights start with you,” this question is paramount. We believe that what you need to do and what you can do is contingent on your life and your spheres of influence. It could be as simple as insuring that you and your buddies behave in a certain way at a bar if you are there with women, challenging discrimination in your home, or making sure that someone who is close to you who might be in an abusive situation knows that you are available to them. What could you do in your work place or your educational institution?

Here are some examples of what people have done after coming in touch with us and our work. In March of last year, Dean Obeidallah, a local comedian in NYC, came to us and said, “You know what? I never understood the size of the problem nor how male comedians created the norm that led to violence against women until I learned from you, Breakthrough. I’m making a commitment to find pathways to make male comedians take a stand against gender violence.” That is who he is and that is what he does.

Two weeks ago, Dean Obeidallah organized this amazing event at Gotham Comedy Club with seven other comedians for a packed house. The guys, who are in a pivotal place of pop culture where they can get ahead by being exploitative of women’s bodies, challenged that same space with their own material.

They are so jazzed about this that Dean wants to create a ‘comedy in a box kit’ for other comedians so that he nor Breakthrough has to be involved but that comedians can sign up for and move forward.

I know it’s a high bar, but it was really one guy who said, “These are my people and this is what I can do in my place to end violence against women.” That is the most important thing for people to ask themselves. People need to realize that violence against women is everyone’s problem and that they can do something about in their community today.

SB: Are there any upcoming projects for Breakthrough this fall that our readers should look out for? 

MD: Absolutely! We are just building an animation for the Green Bay Packers games. We’ve had an animation“Be That Guy” at Nascar races, and we are excited that we have a partnership where we can bring our media that carries narratives on how to disrupt domestic violence to other men. Keep an eye out for that!

We are also embarking on a great partnership with fraternity men to do some message testing on how we invite the Greeks to step into the conversation on ending sexual assault on college campuses and to show up as leaders to challenge it. Those two things are happening in the US.

In India, we have a campaign in partnership with Vodafone that is asking people to send in selfies that would lead to significant resources for young girls to go to school and not be forced into early marriage.

SB: And for our last and silly question: let’s pretend that you are stranded on a desert island. You get to take one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you choose? 

MD: My food would be chaat, Indian junk food that is very spicy. My drink would be prosecco. And my feminist would be Jael Silliman.

Find the original article here.