breakthrough 1Mallika Dutt and Sonali Khan have an ambitious goal: to mobilize an entire generation to put an end to violence against women—and men are at the heart of their campaign.

Their organization Breakthrough works in the United States and India, deploying a mix of social media, pop culture and multimedia campaigns to challenge the deeply held cultural norms they see as the root of the problem.

The scale of the issue they are trying to address is huge: one in three women will experience sexual or physical violence, and in some countries the figure is as high as 70 percent, according to the United Nations.

“We’re using culture to change culture—and give people a concrete way to prevent domestic violence and discrimination against women,” Breakthrough founder and chief executive Dutt said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Dutt and Khan were recently given the $1.25 million Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, the most valuable prize of its kind.

Laws, policies and education are not enough to bring about change in the face of entrenched cultural norms, said Dutt, adding that people are more likely to respond to arts and storytelling than to lectures about human rights.

Breakthrough has attracted some high-profile male supporters, including Star Trek actor Patrick Stewart, who shared his story of witnessing, as a small boy, his father beating up his mother, and the impact it had on his life. His story created a social media storm and encouraged other men to share their stories.

“When men see they can be part of the solution, they are more likely to engage with the issue,” said Dutt, a lawyer who has worked on women’s rights issues for more than three decades.

Dialogue—and seeing men as part of the solution, not just the problem—is an important part of Breakthrough’s work, she said.

“Through our work on campuses in the U.S. with fraternity members, we have learned that men do want to speak out against violence against women but often don’t dare to because of the social norms within their group,” said Dutt.

Encouraging men to hold others to account is another key part of their work, for example through the campaign “Be That Guy,” which was featured at NASCAR motor races in the United States with its call on men to act against sexual harassment.

“The key for all our campaigns is to recruit social change agents —people who believe that change has to happen,” said Khan, Breakthrough’s vice president and India country director. “That’s how we build the Breakthrough Generation.”

Breakthrough says it has reached 15 million people in rural communities and 350 million through its social media campaigns.

Bell Bajao, Hindi for “Ring the Bell,” calls on people, particu-larly boys and men, to interrupt domestic violence wherever and whenever they witness it.

As part of the campaign, Breakthrough created television ads, inspired by true stories of men stepping up against domestic violence, which more than 130 million people have watched.

The rapid growth and reach of social media has been a boon for the organization, but Khan said it is important to focus on the local context.

In India, Breakthrough’s video vans travel through cities and villages to draw attention to violence against women and engage communities through games and street theater, while the #Asking-ForIt social media campaign aims to improve the safety of women in public spaces.

“We work with local people to make sure we have the best approach for the local context,” said Khan.

Dutt and Khan were presented with their award at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, taking place in Oxford.


This article first appeared in The Japan Times,