Celebrating 20 years of Breakthrough.

Popular culture to counter culture 

“We start where people are, but don’t accept that culture is ever an excuse.” Mallika Dutt, Founder and President Emeritus, Breakthrough.

20 years ago, Breakthrough started its journey to change the narrative on violence against women and girls and other human rights abuse across India and US to create a world where everyone lived a life with dignity, equality and justice. Mallika Dutt, the founder of Breakthrough felt that human rights issues needed to be translated into a cultural context so that even those people who aren’t interested can be reached. How best can you reach them but through a music video? Promoted by Virgin Records, “Mann ke Manjeere” spoke about a woman who walks out of a domestic violence situation and becomes a truck driver, it became a dream where everything was possible. And for a long time after that, she and the production team were talking about women’s rights and violence against women in mainstream media.

It was this insight that built the foundation of Breakthrough – that if we do not transform the dominant culture around us, if we don’t challenge those values that uphold violence, discrimination and abuse, then we won’t be able to build a world we dream of and desire.  One of our most successful campaigns, Bell Bajao, asked men and boys to take action against violence against women – not to ignore it, but to interrupt it. It tried to change the narrative where violence against women and girls is seen as a woman’s problem into one that is everybody’s problem. We did this work in India at two broad levels – we created compelling and cutting-edge mass media campaigns that reached a large number of people across the country and we engaged in grassroots mobilisation with young people and community leaders.

Bell Bajao went through the roof – it won close to 20 awards. It reached more than 130 million people via television, mass media, and video vans which traveled the country. Violence against women became a story line on three popular Bollywood soap operas. “Bell Bajao” was the answer to a question on India’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” TV programme. It was picked up in China, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Canada, among other countries.

But most importantly, a lot of men came up to us and said it’s the first time they’ve ever been invited into this conversation as part of the solution. It saw 49% rise in the awareness of the new domestic violence law that was passed in 2005 and it raised demands for services by 15%.

It was when we were doing the end-line of this campaign that we realised that women least equipped to combat domestic violence were the ones that were married off as young girls. This made us lower the age of our target group and we started working with adolescents in the 11-18 age group. We started big, worked with 18,000 girls and boys across 150 government schools across Haryana, one of the most gender regressive states in India. Armed with an impact evaluation of this programme by JPal at MIT, which saw significant changes in behaviour and attitudes not only among girls, but also among boys, we are now scaling up our work with adolescents, both in school and out of it to reach 400,000 of them currently.  

We believe if we are to create a world where violence against women and girls are to become unacceptable, that we should concentrate on building this new leadership because the solutions that we need for our planet are going to emerge from this next generation of leaders. We at Breakthrough believe this is going to be the generation that finally makes violence against women and girls unacceptable. This is going to be the generation that will shift these old norms, attitudes and values and push society to see one another as human beings that deserve respect. This new generation will really think about how we can build a society, an economy and a world where human dignity is central to how we operate and move forward. 

From a small group of committed people who began their journey in India, Breakthrough is growing – we are a team of over 140 people across 3 centres in India. We have a sister concern in the US that works on culture change by using a potent mix of media, arts, and tech with an inter-sectional feminist approach. We have a huge online voice in both the countries that fronts important issues in the lives of women and men in the 21st century. As the internet user-base grew, we realised our work on online violence against women and girls became critical especially in India. The solution we propose starts with creating safer spaces online and offline both for women and girls. 

We want to reach 1 million adolescents with our programme on gender equity by 2023. It is with immense pride that I look back at all that we have achieved and all that we are going to achieve. And I feel confident that with Breakthrough we will be able to enable everyone to own the solutions and really participate to make changes; we will be able to work with everyone to make violence against women and girls unacceptable. I take this opportunity to thank each and everyone who has been our allies and partners throughout our journey.  I also welcome you all to join us in our endeavor to make violence against women and girls unacceptable. 

Sohini Bhattacharya,
President & CEO

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