From the Delhi gangrape in December to the more recent brutal violations of toddlers, horrific instances of sexual abuse and violence against women (VAW) in India continue to haunt society and shock sensibilities. In the continuous outrage, debates and discussion that have followed since, a common refrain has been the need to create a change of mindset and to develop rights actors at every strata - even at the neighbourhood or household level - to complement the policy and legal initiatives of governments and state institutions to promote and protect women’s rights. But while public discourse on this has witnessed a surge only in the wake of recent incidents and media coverage, one organization has been working tirelessly to inspire and mobilize communities towards the objective for over a decade now.
Led by noted feminist and human rights activist Mallika Dutt, Breakthrough - based jointly out of the United States and India - is unique in its use of media and pop culture to create awareness and identify partners in society to promote the cause of women and end all forms of violence against them. A lawyer by training, Mallika is founder, president and CEO of Breakthrough that broke ground in 2000 with Mann ke Manjeere, an award-winning music video championing the cause of women’s rights and aspirations.
Breakthrough’s other novel and very successful campaign has been Bell Bajao! which was globally relaunched as Ring the Bell - highlighting and leveraging the role that men can play in eliminating violence against women.
The campaign comprises an award-winning series of public service announcements inspired by true stories, which show men and boys stepping in and ringing the bell to interrupt overheard violence against women. These have been viewed by over 140 million people in India alone and have won Breakthrough several awards including the Silver Lion at the 2010 Advertising Festival held at Cannes. Bell Bajao! seeks to secure the promise of one million men worldwide on concrete action to end violence against women.
India Together talks to Mallika to know more about this global campaign and its relevance in the Indian context:
1. "Ring the Bell..." - sounds simple, yet evocative. Tell us how this initiative came about and how it works. It appears it all started as early as 2008...
Yes. In 2008, we launched Bell Bajao (“Ring the Bell”) in India, inspired by the many women Breakthrough had been working with on the issue of violence against women and HIV/AIDS. Over and over, they would say to us: you have to talk to the men. We therefore developed Bell Bajao to fill a critical void: the lack of men in the conversation of violence against women. Bell Bajao is about bringing men and boys on as partners to end violence against women — to move beyond men as only perpetrators or bystanders, and become partners in creating solutions for change. We also wanted to break the silence around violence in the home and get everyone to understand that it is not a private matter, nor a “women’s issue” — and we all need to take responsibility for ending it.
Mallika Dutt, Founder/CEO of Breakthrough
We have since grown Bell Bajao, and launched Ring the Bell globally. Breakthrough officially launched Ring the Bell: One million men. One million promises to end violence against women on March 8th during the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women. We are partnered with Promundo, Sonke Gender Justice Network, Call to Men, and UN Women, and officially launched parallel events in NYC, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg and New Delhi. As part of this campaign we are asking men to make concrete, actionable, measurable promises to challenge violence against women. It could be something as small as dedicating their social media outreach to introducing sexual harassment policies into the workplace or ensuring the passage of key legislation.
As with all of our work, our main goal is always to change norms and mindsets — to change culture.
2. Given all that has happened since the tragic Delhi incident, this is probably the most apt moment in history, at least in India, to bring about a systemic response at all levels to the issue of VAW. But, can a movement as global and broad as Ring the Bell stop rape or bring about change in, let us say, a small town in interior Rajasthan?
I understand the critique of having too “broad” of a global campaign. However, violence against women is a global pandemic that poisons every society on earth. The solution we pose with Ring the Bell offers what I truly think is a universal solution—getting men and boys involved as partners, and not perpetrators. True, violent masculinity may manifest itself in different ways, and patriarchal cultural customs may differ across the geographic spectrum, but that should not affect the fact that men need to get involved. Men need to stand up to violence against women in Rajasthan as much as they need to stand up to violence against women in New York City, and Dallas, Texas, and Steubenville, Ohio. The ways in which we communicate this message may differ, but the message itself does not.
3. Has there been any study on the impact so far in local areas, and if yes, what have been the findings?
Absolutely. Bell Bajao has reached more than 140 million individuals in India alone — and has been adapted in many other countries — sparking an unprecedented global dialogue about the role of men and boys in ending violence against women. It has shown men and others that we all have a stake in ending violence — and all have the capacity, and responsibility, to help do so.
We’ve also trained over 75,000 young people in India to stand for change among their peers, families and communities. In addition, we've measured a 40% increase in ability to identify domestic violence --- and the belief that violence is wrong. We've also seen up to a 15% increase in women reporting violence in the communities that the campaign is active in. It might seem like a negative indicator to have the level of reported violence increase, but it's really just women who were previously silent finally, finally speaking up. More than 130,000 people have seen our ads, more than 75,000 change agents have been empowered to lead in their communities through our human rights trainings. We've also been recognized from the stages of the Clinton Global Initiative to the Cannes International Advertising Film Festival. It's all been quite extraordinary.
Since our global launch event on March 8th, the One million men. One million promises. initiative continues to be a huge success. We obtained over 42 million impressions on social media throughout our initial launch week. In addition, we have already accumulated almost 10,000 promises from men dedicated to ending violence against women. In just over a month, the campaign has been featured prominently throughout various media outlets.
Campaign logo for Ring the Bell: One million men. One million promises.
4. As we said, now is an extremely conducive moment to shake things up, but how do you see this conversation going on into the future? Do you ever fear there may be a slip?
I believe we reached a global tipping point with the reaction to the Delhi incident and tragedies like it all over the world. And I really don’t foresee the conversation retreating back to the sidelines.
Popular culture is a very integral part of how social constructs happen. And I think that one of the big culture changes that the Delhi gang rape has created for us is an opportunity for men and women to come together to really fight against violence against women, shoulder to shoulder. And I think that we’re seeing Bollywood responding to that space as well. The number of actors that have stepped forward to make strong statements around women’s equality is very heartening.
Women have made it abundantly clear that any hope for a peaceful and just world needs to start with them. And this time around, it looks like men are listening, and standing — and marching — with them. That’s why I believe that this generation will see the beginning of the end of the violence.
5. You have been a staunch supporter of media and pop culture as a trigger for change. "Man ki Manjeerein" almost proved your stance on this, with the kind of support and discourse it generated...but since then, we have not really seen a major initiative in that space. Any reasons?
I think Mann ke Manjeere proved that pop culture, art and media could reach audiences on a mass scale with a message of dignity, equality and justice, but I feel as if a number of our campaigns since then have achieved this as well. For instance, Bell Bajao has become both metaphor and meme, popping up in soap opera plots and on Kaun Banega Crorepati, India’s premier quiz show (the one featured in Slumdog Millionaire). We have also accumulated numerous individual stories of change: men who tell our trained “rights reporters” about how they themselves have “rung the bell” or otherwise acted to interrupt violence in their homes and communities.
Media that is lively and accessible — with a focus on storytelling — has the power to make human rights real and relevant to people, especially people who may not have thought much about human rights to begin with. Breakthrough uses media and pop culture to — quite literally — bring human rights issues and values home: to inspire conversation about dignity, equality and justice around dinner tables, living rooms and anywhere else people share ideas.
6. Any change, especially in an issue such as violence against women, would entail a Socio-cultural as well as a Legal angle. Do you think there has to be any certain sequence in that?
While legislation and laws are needed, and indeed important, I really do believe you have to start with the cultural change I’ve been talking about. The problem is not just that violence against women is common. The problem is that it is accepted. If a woman is raped or beaten, she’s thought to have done something to “ask for” or “deserve” it. Street harassment is simply as common as, well, walking down the street. Domestic violence behind closed doors is “none of our business.” Law and policy will not — by themselves — change any of that. What will cause the true tipping point? Profound changes in action, attitude and culture.
We have seen that laws, courts, and cops are not enough. We need individual and community action to challenge the habits and norms that perpetuate violence. Men, their allies, and their actions, can create that global tipping point today. With men as leaders and partners, we can build a world in which women are safe -- and in which all of us live freely, fully, and without fear.
7. Finally, could you tell us some more about Breakthrough's Indian Office and what it's working on?
In addition to its work with the global launch of Ring the Bell, the India office has been working tirelessly on issues of early marriage and sex-selective elimination. We also work on the ground in selected places in India to educate women and families about the services and legal recourse available to them, and work with local and government agencies to make sure they can and do deliver those services.
For me, I think it’s about understanding that violence against women, and gender inequity as a whole, is a global, universal pandemic. In the United States, in India, in Senegal, all over Europe, wherever. Human rights is about dignity, equality and justice. It’s a universal concept, which means that all of us are entitled to live with dignity. And the only way we can ensure that all of us can live with dignity is to make sure that in our homes, in our families, and in our communities we make sure that equality and respect can thrive and grow.