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An Interview with Mallika Dutt, president and CEO of Breakthrough

Manu Bhagavan

Updated: October 19, 2012, 11:55 AM IST
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Mallika Dutt is the founder of the groundbreaking human rights organization Breakthrough, where she serves as President and CEO. Breakthrough combines innovative new technologies with grassroots campaigns in communities across the world to uplift women and girls, migrating peoples, and those living with HIV-AIDS, and to more broadly fight for a better world for all. Breakthrough's emphasis on social media has placed it on the frontier of movements for the social good, recognized for its particular effectiveness at involving young people.

Mallika has been widely acclaimed for her work. She recently received an honorary doctorate from Mt Holyoke College, her alma mater, and has also been named one of the "50 coolest Desis in the world" by, joining the likes of AR Rahman, Indra Nooyi, Sachin Tendulkar, and Padma Lakshmi on the list. In 2010, Mallika was the leadoff speaker of the Clinton Global Initiative (see Mallika's talk here:, with which she has been affiliated since 2006. And Mallika is also the recipient of the Asian American Justice Center's Courage Award.

Breakthrough, too, has picked up its share of accolades. Most recently, it won the Avon Global Award for Excellence in Communications, and in 2010, it won the Silver Lion at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity for its Bell Bajao campaign. I had the pleasure of talking to Mallika Dutt about her work.

1. Can you tell us a little bit about the organization you started, Breakthrough?

MD: Breakthrough is a global human rights organization that uses media, arts and technology, along with community mobilization, to inspire people to advance values of dignity, equality and justice. Our current goal is to create social actors around the world who challenge violence and discrimination against women. We work through centers in India and the United States and are now partnering with groups in Nepal, Bangladesh, China, Scotland, Malaysia and Vietnam to engage men and boys in building safe homes and communities.

2. What exactly does being a "human rights activist" mean to you? What does it mean to have concern for human rights in the 21st century?

MD: Human rights at their core are about the rights we all share: to live a life with dignity. That means that each one of us has to be accountable for how we treat our partners, our colleagues, our communities and ourselves, and, at the same time, demand that governments and state institutions promote and protect human rights. Human rights are embedded in a set of values and principles that are extremely relevant for us in the 21st century. We are faced with unprecedented challenges: failing economic and government systems, climate change, dwindling resources, extreme poverty. We also have unprecedented opportunity in an increasingly interconnected world to find meaningful solutions at the local and global level. For the planet to have the kind of change we need, we really should begin with human rights as a baseline, a paradigm, and a value system so that-this time around-we really include everyone in the redesign process.

3. Breakthrough is particularly innovative in its use of multimedia and in its youth outreach. Can you tell us a little about your efforts in these areas, and why they are particularly important?

MD: From our very inception, Breakthrough has used multimedia, art and culture as an integral part of our strategy to transform hearts, minds and actions. We believe that creative and innovative forms of outreach and mobilization create engagement with people-right where they are and in language that is meaningful to them. Young people are absolutely critical for human rights leadership because they are not only the ones who will be most affected by our current global challenges; they also have new ways of thinking and being that may be more effective in getting us to a better place.

4. Breakthrough is also unique in that it focuses primarily on issues in both the United States and India, as well as beyond both these countries. What kind of relationship would you like to see develop between India and the United States over the coming decade, and what kind of positive role do you think such a relationship might play in global affairs?

MD: Wouldn't it be amazing if the two world's largest democracies also became the world leaders in advancing human rights? Wouldn't it be game changing if India and the United States found themselves allies in the fields of medicine, health, technology, and economics to bring their collective brainpower to finding solutions and new ways of tackling our global problems? I am always struck by the creativity and innovation that I find in both countries-and the similarities in the entrepreneurial can-do attitude of the people. Real intentional alliances across civil society, government, and industry that focus on advancing a holistic understanding of human rights could catapult the world into truly a wonderful place.

5. One of the key issues for Breakthrough is immigration. There are complex push-pull factors contributing to the migrations of peoples. In your experience, what are some of the challenges facing immigrant communities today?

MD: We approach immigration from a 19th century mindset of "it's a problem" instead of a 21st century mindset that opens up the world's physical borders and sees all people as contributing to a vibrant and buzzing world. Climate change and the collapsing economic structures are going to make immigration an extremely volatile issue and a critical human rights concern. We have to respond to the current situation while shifting our frame around how we understand immigration if we're ever going to get to a more constructive and productive place on the issue.

6. Breakthrough has long fought for gender justice. Yet, both India and the US have seen recent upsurges in gender-based discrimination. A TrustLaw poll of gender specialists this past summer ranked India the worst for women of all the world's large economies. In the US, the media have referred to a "war on women," represented by comments by several political candidates that appear to legitimize rape, and roll back women's access to healthcare. Can you tell us a little about some of your latest efforts to help combat these trends?

MD: Breakthrough's been committed to advancing women's human rights and promoting gender justice from its inception. We believe that transforming gender relations can lead to more peaceful and equitable homes and communities for everyone. In recent years, we've focused on engaging men and boys in challenging violence against women through a campaign called Bell Bajao (Ring the Bell). The campaign provides a concrete call to action: if you hear or see violence, interrupt it. It also acts as a way to include people in thinking about domestic violence as a public and social issue that all of us need to challenge and change.

Bell Bajao has reached more than 130 million people in India alone through our multimedia and community mobilization strategies. The campaign has been integrated into several soap operas, school competitions and even been featured as a question on Kaun Banega Crorepati. (And, I am happy to add, a correct answer!) The campaign has also been adapted in Pakistan, China, Vietnam and Malaysia and we're now working with folks in Bangladesh, Nepal and Scotland. We've been very heartened by the response and feel that there are ways to turn around the horrible statistics if we can get everyone engaged in violence prevention.

7. Please tell us about #ImHere.

MD: #ImHere grew out of Breakthrough's decade-long work on immigration and racial justice in post 9-11 United States. The war on women and the war on immigrants have coalesced in the lives of immigrant women and through #ImHere, we're asking everyone to stand up for immigrant women and their human rights. The campaign includes a powerful video that was inspired by a testimony that I heard as a member of the We Belong Together delegation to Alabama. There, a mother spoke of her inability to call the police when her daughter was sexually assaulted because of her-well justified-fear of deportation that would have torn her family apart. Those kinds of impossible choices are being made by immigrant women every day, and we think it's critical that the next president lead the country on fair immigration laws and policies.

8. How can people get involved?

MD: We welcome everyone's participation in Breakthrough's campaigns. We appreciate folks spreading the word through their social networks and also are heartened by the many people who write in and tell us about actions they've taken after being inspired by one of our campaigns. For Breakthrough, human rights start with individual action and that means that people can get involved by challenging violence and discrimination in small, everyday ways in their homes, communities, work places, religious communities-wherever they can make a difference.

9. You are an inspirational figure for a lot of people. What would you say to a young person (or an older person!) who wants to help make the world a better place for all?

MD: It really starts with you. At the end of the day, if you treat the people closest to you with respect, you can change the world.

10. What does the future of human rights--in India, in the US, around the world--look like to you?

MD: I'm very inspired by everything I am seeing around me. Yes, the world is full of challenges but we have unprecedented opportunities to recreate, reimagine and rebuild our future. I am finding that a lot of younger people naturally orient towards human rights values and principles. That, more than anything, gives me a lot of hope and energy to keep doing this work.
First Published: October 19, 2012, 11:55 AM IST