Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mallika Dutt Found Help in Her Work to End Violence against Women. She Recruited Men

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mallika Dutt Found Help in Her Work to End Violence against Women. She Recruited Men

Article excerpt

Every morning Mallika Dutt toys with the figurines on the windowsill in her East Harlem apartment.

"My windowsill has become this kind of enchanted garden [with] all these creatures and these animals and these elves and these fairies and these dancers," she says. "I change the configurations every day, and I look at my little enchanted forest, and I think 'This is what the world could look like. This is what we could be.' "

It's a rare moment of wistfulness, and Ms. Dutt waves it off. But it's clear that working at the helm of Breakthrough, the human rights organization she created in 2000, even when there are much- deserved accolades for its innovative work on violence against women and girls, takes a toll.

Four years earlier, I had seen Dutt on a stage at Bioneers, an environmental and social justice conference in northern California. She had been invited to share Breakthrough's new campaign, Bell Bajao, Hindi for "Ring the Bell." It called on people, particularly boys and men, to interrupt domestic violence wherever and whenever they witnessed it.

The campaign was launched in Dutt's home country of India, and she spoke with passion and urgency about inviting men to step in. The crowd was mesmerized, and, when Dutt finished, they rose to their feet, clapping thunderous support.

"Bell Bajao went through the roof," Dutt says. It won close to 50 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 program. It was picked up in China, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Canada, among other countries.

But most important, Dutt says, "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's exactly what Bell Bajao had been created to do. Indeed, it was what Breakthrough had been created to do - use media, arts, and technology to change cultural norms.

"When I started Breakthrough 13 years ago, everybody thought I was insane," says Dutt, sitting behind her desk in New York City flanked by books that include Sun Tzu's "The Art of War."

Breakthrough was unconventional. But so, from all accounts, is Dutt.

Her gift is "naming a future that we could have," says Nina Simons, president and cofounder of Bioneers. "I find myself increasingly respectful of people who set seemingly unreasonable goals."

Her ideas have always been a bit "out there," says Charlotte Bunch, founder and former director of the Center for Global Women's Leadership at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., for whom Dutt worked as a summer intern while attending Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

Dutt was assigned to her, Ms. Bunch says, because "I think they thought I was the only one who could handle her." Even then, she says, "What Mallika understood was that [human rights] issues needed to be translated into a cultural context so that even those people who aren't interested can be reached."

Dutt's determination had already vaulted her from a childhood in Calcutta, India, where she had balked at the prescribed role her family and culture planned for her, to Mount Holyoke on a scholarship. She followed that with a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and a law degree from New York University.

The idea for Breakthrough came to Dutt while she was working in India as the Ford Foundation's human rights program director. She was frustrated that "the whole human rights paradigm was predicated on after the fact: You dealt with abuse after it had happened." She likens it to "having the tap on..., and you're dealing with it by grabbing buckets."

Breakthrough was about turning the tap off.

Dutt expressed her frustration - and her idea - to Joanne Sandler, who was working as deputy executive director at UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women, and who had known Dutt since she was 18 ("a firebrand," Ms. …

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