She’s Doing It: Mallika Dutt Defines Her Terms for Global Human Rights

Mallika Dutt

“You have to meet Mallika—she’s amazing!” my friend Lynn Harris enthused. She was so right. There are few people with visions big enough to encompass human rights on a global scale and then create breakthrough ways to advance them. Mallika Dutt did just that, and she tells her story in this week’s “She’s Doing It.” President and CEO of Breakthrough, the global human rights organization she started is based in New York and India and uses the power of arts, media, and pop culture to advance dignity, equality, and justice. Read on and be sure to watch the powerful video’s they’ve produced to deliver the message.

Ten years ago, in the midst of a career in philanthropy, law and public policy, I set out to produce a music album and music video about women’s dreams and aspirations. I soon found myself far from the familiar hallways of my desk job at the Ford Foundation — and on set in a Rajasthani desert for the video shoot. I watched our lead performer – driving an enormous truck through potholed roads, fifty women dancing in the back – with my heart in my mouth. I negotiated permits and doled out bribes to local authorities. I visited all the major spiritual shrines in the area asking for blessings for the success of the project. I could not have been further from my comfort zone. I could not have been more terrified. I could not have been happier.

After working inside the global human rights movement for most of my professional life, the experience of seeing the same faces at every meeting, policy brief or conference had left me frustrated. We were engaging in critical dialogue – on the rights we share, to live with dignity, equality and justice – but we were trapped in an echo chamber. Wanting to reenergize my own commitment to these values, and inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt’s conviction that human rights “begin in small places, close to home,” I began to imagine ways to bring the conversation out of closed meeting rooms and into the living rooms of real people.

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I’d become that media, art and popular culture could express these values in new ways for new audiences. I dreamed up the idea of creating Mann ke Manjeere (Rhythm of the Mind), a music video and album of women’s dreams and aspirations, with no money to speak of but an inexplicable confidence that it could succeed. I got to work getting it made in India, my birthplace, sourcing funds from a network of friends, family, and colleagues. I thought that was the hard part. Then I set out to find distribution.

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You can’t imagine the number of blank stares I received. Nothing like this had ever been done and no one would touch the issues we wanted to address: domestic violence, dowries, girls’ education. This was a media culture in which women were more likely to be seen as objects of desire or disdain than sources of inspiration. I was told that an album about women’s empowerment would never sell, that I was naïve, and that the project would never get off the ground.

The industry boys’ club thought I was crazy, but I persevered and made my own voice heard. After much persistence, and a bullheaded refusal to take no for an answer, I partnered with Virgin Records to distribute the album. Soon after, Mann ke Manjeere became a top ten album for six months, won the National Screen Awards, was nominated for an MTV music award, and created an unprecedented national dialogue about domestic violence and women’s rights in India. The success of this first endeavor led me to found Breakthrough, a global human rights organization that uses media and popular culture to inspire people to take bold action for dignity, equality and justice.

Today, with an introduction from President Clinton at the opening plenary of the Clinton Global Initiative, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as a global ambassador and a Cannes Lion among our achievements, Breakthrough’s campaigns have brought human rights values alive for millions globally. Whether it’s Bell Bajao ! (Ring the Bell !) — calling on men and boys to bring domestic violence to a halt, or America 2049, our Facebook game for human rights, diversity, and democracy – Breakthrough has succeeded in bringing human rights home to newer and younger audiences more than ever before.

I am tremendously proud of my journey, but it is by no means unique. Women around the world are making real change in every way imaginable – they are leading families, communities, corporations, and governments – and we can’t move the agenda forward without the full recognition of women’s power-to. If the rules of the game aren’t strengthening women’s voices, then we must be bold enough to redefine them. Because if we are serious about creating lasting solutions to global problems, women can’t just have a seat at the table; we must transform the very shape of the table.

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