As part of a street theater event to promote the Bell Bajao campaign, Breakthrough rights advocates engage with residents of a village in the Indian state of Karnataka. (Photograph courtesy of Breakthrough) 

In the fall of 2015, a group of young men at Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, Ind., launched an unusual back-to-school project. In an earlier episode at another university, men who belonged to campus fraternities had posted banners that directed sexually aggressive messages to first-year women and their parents. “Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time,” read a banner posted at one fraternity house. Next to that banner was one that read, “Freshman daughter dropoff.” These and other messages offered a stark example of the “rape culture” that many advocates say is alarmingly common at US colleges and universities.

For their project—a campaign called Banner Up—the men at IU hoisted signs on campus buildings that sent a very different series of messages: “Real Hoosier men should respect women.” “Honk if you support Sexual Assault Crisis Services [SACS].” (SACS is an office within the university’s student health service.) Banner Up organizers made a point of hanging some of their signs on IU fraternity houses. “Our campaign was meant to show that fraternities, instead of perpetuating this [problem], were making an effort to reduce or eliminate it,” says Will McElhaney, a junior at IU who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business. McElhaney is a member of Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault (MARS), an all-male peer education group at IU that coordinated Banner Up in conjunction with the university’s Interfraternity Council. Those groups also received crucial support from Breakthrough, a global human rights organization.

Breakthrough works to prevent violence and discrimination against women and girls, and it employs a wide range of methods—from conducting in-depth training sessions for young people, government officials, and community groups to harnessing the power of the arts, media, and popular culture. By “breaking through” cultural patterns that affect both men and women, the organization aims to change social norms on everything from domestic violence to child marriage. According to Mallika Dutt, the founder of Breakthrough, the name of the group derives partly from the idea of raising a “breakthrough generation” of people who will transcend harmful gender-based practices.

For McElhaney and other members of MARS, one form of support from Breakthrough consisted of “catalyst” training. “That’s where everyone gets in a room and tries to identify a few elements of culture on campus that are problematic,” says McElhaney. “That led us to the Banner Up campaign.” Guidance from Breakthrough continued as the MARS team designed and implemented Banner Up. “We couldn’t have done it without Breakthrough,” McElhaney says. “They’ve been a huge inspiration from the beginning.”

The work of Breakthrough spans both the North American continent and the Indian subcontinent. In the United States, it focuses largely (though not exclusively) on confronting campus sexual violence; in India, it battles against domestic violence, rape, and childhood marriage. Dutt and other Breakthrough leaders believe that certain universal principles apply to the struggle against genderbased violence in all parts of the world. And in that spirit, they have created an organization that has no single headquarters. Dutt and her colleagues incorporated the organization both in the United States and in India, and they see considerable value in allowing ideas and lessons to flow freely between one center of operations and another.

Complementing that global vision, however, is a commitment by Breakthrough leaders to recognizing the needs and nuances of the local environments in which they operate. “They spend time in different communities trying to understand the levers [of change] and who needs to get buy-in,” says Shivani Garg Patel, a principal at the Skoll Foundation. “That’s why they’ve been effective.” In April 2016, the Skoll Foundation bestowed a Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship on Breakthrough. (The award comes with $1.25 million in funding.)

Dutt, when she launched Breakthrough in 2000, sought to bring a new approach to human rights advocacy. “I had seen too many organizations that were based in the Global North that went around in the Global South with these program ideas and cookie-cutter approaches to social change that made no sense in the local context,” she says. Dutt also wanted to create an organization with a new kind of global structure. “Incorporating Breakthrough in India and the United States was about [building a] transnational identity while also recognizing the need for locally driven ideas and solutions,” she explains. “It was an experiment.”

Defining the Problem

In December 2012, in Delhi, India, Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old Indian physiotherapy intern, died from her injuries after being beaten, gang-raped, and tortured on a bus by six men, including the driver. That attack, together with news of a second gang rape that occurred during the same week, sparked mass demonstrations across India.

Also in 2012, an analysis by The Washington Post of federal government data on campus crime in the United States revealed that a rising number of students and employees at universities had reported acts of sexual misconduct. Among the roughly 1,570 US colleges and universities with 1,000 or more students, 55 percent had received at least one report of a forcible sex act on campus. In recent years, moreover, incidents of campus sexual violence have become headline-grabbing events. In 2016, for example, a former Stanford University student named Brock Turner was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman on the campus of that institution. (He was a student there at the time of the incident.) When a judge gave Turner what many people believed was an unduly light sentence, a nationwide uproar ensued.

These events have contributed to a growing awareness of violence against women and girls. “Thirty years ago, we had to prove to donors and policymakers that violence against women and girls was a real problem,” says Jennifer McCleary-Sills, director of the global program on violence, rights, and inclusion at the International Center for Research on Women. “There’s been a lot of work done to document this.”

The problem, in fact, involves a wide range of closely related issues—from domestic violence and rape to child marriage, education inequality, and genital mutilation. Overall, the scale of the problem is daunting. About 120 million girls worldwide (slightly more than 1 in 10) have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts. And 1 in 3 women globally will at some point experience physical or sexual violence, most of them from an intimate partner. “‘One in three’ is more than 800 million women,” says McCleary-Sills. “That’s a staggering number. If it were any other kind of epidemic—like an infectious disease—we would be doing something about it.”

Yet violence against women is by no means inevitable. “Increasingly, there’s evidence that specific interventions can prevent it, and that’s where we need to go,” says McCleary-Sills. Approaches vary widely. At one end of the spectrum, there are advocacy and awarenessraising efforts. In September 2014, for example, the United Nations launched HeForShe, a campaign that aims to mobilize one billion men and boys to support gender equality and an end to violence against women. At the other end of the spectrum, there are more practical forms of support. In the United States, WomensLaw.org (part of the National Network to End Domestic Violence) provides legal information to survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault and links women via email with advocates and support organizations.

In India, too, a great deal of activity is under way to confront this problem. “On domestic violence alone, there are so many strategies,” says Vanita Nayak Mukherjee, an India-based program officer at the Ford Foundation who works on gender, sexuality, and reproductive justice. “There are counseling centers, help lines, and legal aid and support.”

Changing Minds

In the late 1990s, Mallika Dutt was working as a program officer in the New Delhi office of the Ford Foundation. She had spent many years working on civil rights and social justice issues. (In 1989, for example, she helped create Sakhi, an organization that supports South Asian immigrant women in New York City.) But she realized that at events devoted to confronting violence against women and girls, she kept hearing the same group of people talk about the same set of issues. “I felt like I was in an echo chamber,” she says. “There was a real gap between the policy rhetoric and the accomplishments we had made.”

Dutt also came to believe that advocates were placing too much emphasis on changing laws and achieving public policy gains. “This was simply not enough,” she says. “We could have amazing laws on the books and have nothing change in the lives of people,” she says. “It wasn’t just an implementation or a resource issue. It was a culture and attitude issue.”

During her tenure at the Ford Foundation, Dutt developed an interest in popular culture. At the time, satellite television had started to permeate India, bringing MTV and other entertainment channels to audiences in that country. Dutt decided to create an album and a music video that would draw attention to domestic violence. In her spare time, she met with Mumbai-based executives to discuss the project. Then, in 2000, she produced an album titled Mann ke Manjeeré (“Rhythm of the Mind”) and partnered with Virgin Records to distribute it. Subtitled “An Album of Women’s Dreams,” the recording tells the story of a woman who breaks away from an abusive marriage and becomes a truck driver. The album topped the Indian music charts, and both the album and the Mann ke Manjeeré music video won major awards, including a National Screen Award for best music video in 2001. More than 100 million households in South Asia, and millions of other people worldwide, saw the video.

From that experience, Dutt gained a couple of important insights. First, she saw the power of storytelling and media in changing ways of thinking. Second, she recognized that using such tools successfully would entail a shift in her own thinking. Instead of focusing on the use of policy levers to advance social justice, she would need to interact directly with communities and with mainstream culture. “To go on that kind of creative journey—with lyricists, musicians, artists, and entertainment people—required a very different mind-set from the one I used when engaging in advocacy for policy reform,” she says.

Following the success of Mann ke Manjeeré, Dutt faced a choice: Should she stay at the Ford Foundation, or should she leave to pursue this new form of activism? She chose the latter course—and thus Breakthrough was born. At first, Dutt had to fund the organization by drawing on a patchwork of resources, including her own money and donations from friends. “The whole thing was happening in a difficult but pretty typical startup fashion,” she says. “But we planted the seeds of the modality that we now use in a more intentional, integrated way.” (Today, Breakthrough receives funding from sources that include the Ford Foundation, Google, the NoVo Foundation, and Save the Children.)

Leveraging Culture

Breakthrough reaches its audiences in multiple venues and through a wide variety of channels. It targets places where social norms take shape—schools, churches and temples, and workplaces, as well as broadcast and social media—and uses outlets that range from television and radio shows to online games and public service advertising. It also offers classroom lessons, leadership development sessions, interactive theater and presentations, and workshops in health centers and other community settings.

To serve remote communities in rural India, Breakthrough uses a “media on wheels” approach: Staff members and volunteers will drive one of the organization’s video vans into a village and host a session where community members can watch public service announcements or attend a Breakthrough street theater offering. “They do a lot of activation at ground level. It’s not just about digital media and television,” says Zenobia Pithawalla, executive creative director for the Indian division of the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, which provides pro bono services to Breakthrough.

Perhaps the most successful campaign that Breakthrough has conducted so far in India is Bell Bajao (“Ring the Bell”). Launched in 2008, Bell Bajao calls on men and boys who see or hear signs of domestic violence to interrupt such violence by ringing the doorbell of any home where it is taking place. For the campaign, Breakthrough created public service announcements that it has distributed not only through broadcast, print media, and online media but also through its video vans. In addition, the campaign identifies and supports local advocates and provides training to youth leaders and community leaders. Breakthrough has now rolled out Bell Bajao globally, and as of 2016 the campaign had reached 240 million people.

In US-based campaigns, Breakthrough leaders have found that the most effective methods for reaching people involve digital technology—social media channels, in particular. One example is the G Word, a campaign launched in 2015 that features a multimedia platform on which young people can post personal stories about the impact of harmful gender norms. (The “G word,” of course, is “gender.”) Breakthrough uses social media to promote the G Word platform, and it also asks partner organizations to share information about the campaign through their online and offline networks. “We’ve had about 125,000 site visits from 49 states, and to date we’ve collected 590 stories [for the campaign],” says Phoebe Schreiner, country director for the United States at Breakthrough. “We have a lot of rich resources on the website that show men what they can do to change things in their fraternities or to change campus traditions that might be troublesome. We try to create tools that are usable for young people.”

A sign from a Breakthrough-affiliated campaign called Banner Up hangs from the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house at Indiana University. (Photograph by Lauren McNeeley, courtesy of the Indiana Daily Student

Mixing Media

Today, many human rights groups are tapping into the power of media to advance their missions. What distinguishes Breakthrough from many of these groups is that it originated as a media-focused advocacy organization: Using music, film, and other forms of popular culture has always been at the heart of its operations. Sonali Khan, vice president and country director for India at Breakthrough, notes that media can be both a negative and a positive force. “When you look at the role of men and women, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, media can make sure those hierarchies are constantly being validated, or it can challenge those relationships,” she says. “And the interesting thing about media is that people are part of the change.”

Breakthrough can cite impressive data on the reach of its media campaigns. In 2014, for example, it mounted a campaign in India called Board the Bus, which aimed to make bus transport safe for women. Along with drawing more than 2,000 people to a rally in Delhi, the campaign attracted 7,800 visitors to its website and reached more than 9 million people via Twitter and more than 30 million people via Facebook. This ability to bring scale to a message signals the potential that media holds for nonprofit groups like Breakthrough, says Charles Gasper, senior evaluation consultant at TCC Group, which provides strategy, program development, capacity building, and evaluation services to the nonprofit sector. Traditional nonprofits tend to be effective at influencing people with whom they interact directly, but that kind of interaction goes only so far. “What media does is expand that [influence] exponentially,” Gasper argues.

Another advantage of developing media-based campaigns is that other media outlets can pick up and spread a campaign message. The Bell Bajao campaign, for example, served as a plot element in several Indian soap operas and became the topic of a question on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

At the heart of Breakthrough’s model of culture change is the evaluation work that the organization conducts before, during, and after each campaign. Before launching Bell Bajao, for example, Breakthrough assessed attitudes toward domestic violence and levels of knowledge about what constitutes domestic violence under Indian law. Then, at different points during the campaign, Breakthrough examined attitudes and knowledge levels for signs of change. As part of this process, the organization also collected stories from people who reported that, as a result of Bell Bajao, they had intervened in a domestic violence situation. The Breakthrough team found that levels of knowledge about this topic increased over the course of the Bell Bajao campaign: A significantly higher proportion of respondents, for instance, indicated an awareness that domestic violence includes not only physical abuse but also emotional abuse, sexual abuse, verbal threats, and economic deprivation. About 61 percent of respondents who had encountered a domestic violence incident—up from 53 percent in the baseline assessment—reported that people in their community had taken action to stop the incident.

To measure viewership and readership for the content of its campaigns, Breakthrough uses data provided by sources such as Television Audience Measurement, the National Readership Survey, and the Nielsen Company, as well as online tools such as Google Analytics. The organization also conducts focus groups and surveys to assess whether viewers remember an ad or a video and to determine which message they took from it. “We look at qualitative and quantitative data in a very intentional way, and that has become one of the pillars of our methodology,” says Dutt.

Taking Action

Of course, spreading a message does not in itself lead to social change. So creating tools for action is a critical part of the Breakthrough strategy. During the Mann ke Manjeeré campaign, Dutt realized that the message conveyed in the album and the video would not be enough to create momentum for change. So on the inside sleeve of the album, she included a list of five actions that listeners could take to empower women: Stop dowry (a reference to the practice in which a husband and his family abuse or even kill a woman in an effort to extort a higher marital dowry from her). Prevent violence. Share housework. Educate girls. Support equal inheritance.

Gasper highlights the wisdom of this approach. “We know media can affect attitudes to some degree,” he says. “But unless you give people an opportunity to act, change won’t occur—especially when you’re talking about social norms that may be several generations in the making.” For this reason, Breakthrough puts as much emphasis on reaching individuals who can become advocates as it does on appealing to mass audiences. Much of this work occurs through training programs.

In the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh, for example, Breakthrough offered a program that helped a young girl named Ranjani to pursue her studies in science. Ranjani, a member of a low-caste minority, had not previously questioned the gender discrimination that was prevalent in her community. But when her parents tried to forbid her from pursuing higher education, she became unhappy. Then Ranjani took part in a workshop that Breakthrough organized in her community. The workshop, which included exercises aimed at helping participants challenge patriarchal norms, gave her the confidence to fight for the right to continue her education.

Ranjani, now in the second year of her studies, has become an advocate who spreads awareness in her community of the need to support education for girls. She helped form a group called Jagriti Yuva Shakti, which works to change attitudes about this topic. The group also raises money to pay for the education of girls whose families would otherwise force them to drop out of school. “Education is important for all of us, but many [girls] don’t know how to assert themselves,” Ranjani says. “It was at Breakthrough’s training that I learned to take initiative for myself and to help others—especially girls—in overcoming any form of violence they face.”

Students from a school in the state of Jharkhand surround two Breakthrough leaders: Sonali Kahn, country director for India, and Mallika Dutt (on the left), founder and CEO. (Photograph courtesy of Breakthrough) 

Involving Men

In 2000, soon after the release of Mann ke Manjeeré, Dutt first became aware of the potential for men to become effective allies in the battle against gender-based v iolence and d iscrimination. Along with members of the team that produced the album, she went on a six-city publicity tour, and she discovered that men as well as women had a strong interest in the project. She also engaged in lively discussions with men on the production team. “It was so powerful that the men who’d been involved in the creative arc of the album were the ones talking about women’s rights,” says Dutt. “For the first time, I experienced what it meant to have men engaging in that conversation.”

Since then, engaging men in the work of Breakthrough has become a key strategy for Dutt and her team. “It’s another indicator of how they are looking at all levers for change,” says Patel. “Men have to be a part of the conversation [about changing social norms]—and in some cases [they have to] lead it.”

Too often, Breakthrough leaders believe, the prevailing view is that men can only be part of the problem. Indeed, they launched the Bell Bajao campaign to help demonstrate that men could be part of the solution. “The narrative was that domestic violence was something only women were concerned about: Men were [seen as] the perpetrators, women were [seen as] the victims, and men were not seen as able to engage,” says Kahn. By calling on men to intervene to prevent domestic violence, the Bell Bajao campaign sought to change that narrative. “You’re enhancing the agency of men to step up to support women,” says Khan. “You’re challenging the discourse.”

One area where Breakthrough places men in a prominent role is its work to combat campus violence in the United States—particularly among members of the fraternity houses that are part of the so-called Greek system. Schreiner highlights elements of the culture that prevails in many universities: “In the Greek system, there are practices set up where men have to prove themselves by having multiple sex partners. Or they have to show pictures of topless women. That’s not necessarily connected with sexual violence, but it’s part of a climate in which that behavior is acceptable.”

In an effort to shift that culture, Breakthrough helps young men who are college students to act as leaders in preventing violence. Its support for MARS, the group at Indiana University that McElhaney belongs to, provides an example. Each semester, MARS conducts sessions to help its members learn how to identify a potentially dangerous situation—as when, for instance, a student at a fraternity party has had too much to drink and starts acting aggressively—and how to intervene safely. “One of the big things we do is train people in bystander intervention,” McElhaney says. “You shouldn’t allow something to happen [just] because you’re afraid of conflict.”

Closely related to such efforts is the “catalyst” training that Breakthrough offers. To date, about 415 students, administrators, and faculty members from 42 US colleges and universities have gone through catalyst training. McElhaney decided to join the ranks of these catalysts in part because of an incident that happened during his freshman year. He learned that someone he knew had experienced gender-based violence. “When I had a good friend tell me that she had been sexually assaulted, that sparked me to get involved,” he recalls.

Crossing Boundaries

At first glance, sexual assault on US campuses and domestic violence in rural India don’t appear to have much in common. But Breakthrough and its partners say that at root these problems are the same. “More often than not, the causes are universal, whether that’s domestic violence or sexual harassment, and they exist in every strata of society,” says Pithawalla.

That’s one reason why Breakthrough has not established a dominant headquarters in either the United States or India. In the early days, the organization had two hubs of activity: the dining table in Dutt’s New York City apartment and the verandah of a house in Delhi. And today, even though the organization has a strong infrastructure, it maintains the same decentralized structure that it used at its inception.

The Indian-American axis for Breakthrough to some extent reflects the identity of Dutt, who was born in India but has spent much of her career in the United States. But over time she and her colleagues have come to value the ability to develop ideas in one part of the world and then to adapt them in another. “We started the relationship between the two offices with a shared vision around culture change and then recognized that we were pursuing different modalities and learning from each other,” she says.

At a broad level, Breakthrough follows the same vision and the same strategies—the same focus on media, arts, and culture; the same investment in on-the-ground training and mobilization—in both countries. Of course, some Breakthrough efforts do not translate directly from one country to the other. Schreiner sums up the balance that Breakthrough strikes between replicating a strategy and adapting it: “There are some things that are completely universal that we share between our offices,” she says. “And there are some [cases] where, based on the audience and the cultural context, we shape programming in different ways.”

Consider the Bell Bajao campaign. When they were exploring whether to launch that effort in the United States, Breakthrough leaders delivered a presentation about Bell Bajao to various US professional and civil society groups. “The response from a huge number of people was that [implementing this campaign] was going to be really difficult here because people have guns,” says Dutt. “People [in the United States] are more likely to pick up the phone and call 911 than knock on the door of their neighbor—because otherwise they might get shot.” In the United States, therefore, the emphasis of the campaign shifted. “It wasn’t ads showing people ringing the doorbell at their neighbor’s home,” says Dutt. “That’s how cultural context exploration works.” Using a newly developed message (“One million men. One million promises”) Breakthrough turned the campaign into a call for men to intervene in culturally relevant ways, such as by calling 911. The US campaign also encouraged men to challenge gender-based violence by, for example, promoting respect for women in their workplaces.

Nevertheless, the fundamental approach used in the Bell Bajao campaign was applicable in both countries. “What translates is the importance of engaging men in challenging violence against women,” says Dutt. “That’s a strategy that we can use across the board. Whether we’re engaging men to address violence on US college campuses or men who are decision makers at a district level in India, the ways in which men understand their role are pretty universal.”

Breaking Through

As Breakthrough leaders look ahead, they note that gender-based violence is receiving more attention—both in India and in the United States—than it has received in the past. So they now have a big question to address: How can Breakthrough capitalize both on its own success and on an increasing global interest in the rights of women and girls? Dutt is nothing if not ambitious. “We’re using this moment when gender-based violence is on the global agenda and when technology is allowing us to engage in deeper ways, and we’re figuring out how to catalyze millions of social change actors,” she says.

Instead of increasing the size of its own organization, Dutt and her colleagues want to spark a movement that will encompass a wide range of stakeholders. Part of doing so will involve embarking on partnerships with organizations in business, media, government, and civil society. (Breakthrough already works in partnership with groups in countries that include Bangladesh, Brazil, Nepal, South Africa, and Sweden.) “We’re looking for people to work with us and build on a rich body of work. ‘How do we take [this work] to the next level?’ is the conversation we’re having right now,” Dutt explains.

Dutt sees great potential in enabling others—women and men, Indians and Americans—to achieve breakthrough change. “If you look at our logo, you’ll see that it’s a circle with one spoke starting to tilt,” she says. “The idea is that it takes that one person to shift others to move.”

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