Breathing Life into Policy: Rinku Sen Talks to Mallika Dutt about How to Create a Culture of Human Rights, and Win a Music Video Award at the Same Time

By Sen, Rinku | Colorlines Magazine, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Breathing Life into Policy: Rinku Sen Talks to Mallika Dutt about How to Create a Culture of Human Rights, and Win a Music Video Award at the Same Time


Sen, Rinku, Colorlines Magazine


As the founder and executive director of Breakthrough: Creating a Human Rights Culture, Mallika Dutt thinks hard about how to bridge policymaking and popular culture.

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Dutt has been working on human rights organizing and policy for 20 years. She was a founding member of Sakhi for South Asian women, and later associate director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership, which was instrumental in redefining international human rights law to include violations that affect women, such as rape, as a war crime. She was then the Ford Foundation program officer for human rights in India.

Breakthrough's first effort was an album of songs about women's rights. M'ann Ke Manjeeree (Rhythm of the Mind): An Album of Women's Dreams sold 50,000 copies and the title track music video won a Screen Award and was nominated for an MTV award. The group participated in a campaign to pass India's first national domestic violence law and continues to work on violence and HIV/AIDS issues. Breakthrough's major U.S. effort was to host a series of town hall discussions about immigration policy featuring performances by writer and actor Sarah Jones. This was followed by Speak UP Act UP for New America, which encouraged young immigrants to get involved in civic affairs. As Dutt prepares to launch a major popular culture campaign on human rights in the U.S. with a focus on immigration and criminal justice issues to match her work in India, she discusses her transformation from policy wonk to music producer.

How did you get the idea of doing a song and video?

After 20 years, I was frustrated with the rarified world in which human rights work existed. The language of human rights was extremely legalese-oriented. We used words like "state action," "public and private spheres," and "accountability"--very important words but when you tried to use them in a context outside of your little group, people looked at you with blurred eyes.

I wanted to find a vocabulary and a language that resonated with the public, particularly young people. So, while I was in India, I started to go and meet people in the entertainment business on my own time. I began with talking about women's rights, violence against women was a critical issue, blah blah, and they all laughed at me. Across the board, whether it was Sony or Virgin or BMG, the idea of trying to do something popular around domestic violence or dowry deaths was a no-flier. But they gave me lots of advice.

They said it can't be didactic, you can't beat people over the head, the music's got to be so kickass that people are going to want to play it.

I bought all the Indie pop music that had come out lately. I listened to I don't know how much horrible stuff until I heard one album that I loved called Ab Ke Sawan. I said okay, this is my team. Then I had to find these people, they were just names on the back of an album cover--so I pulled strings to get phone numbers, and I set up meetings and pitched this idea of doing an album on women's rights. The music video was inspired by a true story of a woman I had heard testify at a hearing around violence against women in the Muslim community. This notion of crafting music that spoke of emotion and hopes and desires rather than issues came together magically.

How are you picking your issues?

I believe that we have to find ways to do multi-issue, multi-identity organizing. I haven't found a paradigm other than human rights that enables that kind of coalition. People don't live their lives in these narrow, segmented ways we do our organizing in. Our issues have emerged quite organically. For example, if we are working on women and HIV/AIDS, we locate our work in the broader context of gender relations. If we talk about detentions and deporations, we try to draw parallels to the over-incarceration of African Americans.

People say that politics don't make for good art. …

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