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'Nobody wants to touch the issue of violence against women'

June 23, 2009 14:58 IST

The founder of Breakthrough, a human rights organisation that uses popular culture, leadership training and community education to transform public attitudes and fight violence against women, Mallika Dutt, 47, is based in the USA and has dedicated all of her adult life to fighting for causes she believes in.

Hailing from Calcutta, this enterprising lady grew up with the feeling of being discriminated against because she was a girl, and this led to her subsequent identification as a feminist. She chose not to conform to age-old conceptions of how women should behave, and instead started actively fighting domestic violence among South Asian women in the United States, as well as providing support to victims.

Today, the founder of a human rights organisation, Mallika has a lot to be proud of.

My background:I grew up in Calcutta, in a joint family with 3 boys -- two cousins and one brother. From the very beginning, I was aware of the double standards regarding the things that they could do, as boys, and I couldn't, because I was a girl. So if they were playing, I was supposed to learn how to cook. If I wanted to do something, the answer I would always get was, "You can't, because you are a girl". Another thing I would constantly hear was, "When you go to your own house, you can do whatever you want. So I always grew up with this sense of anger -- "What do you mean, when I go to my own house? Whose house is this then?" Whether it was something as ridiculous as me wanting a pet snake, or anything else, this was always the response. So from a very early age, I always felt that my house would have to be my own, not my parents' or husband's.

So I started thinking -- what would it take for me to get to that stage? I started to think about going to college in the USA and became really obsessed about that. I managed to get a scholarship and get there -- and have pretty much lived there and supported myself since 1980, when I was 18 years old.

I think that was where I formed my identity as a feminist -- growing up in a household where I felt very strongly about my place in it and the world. When I was in Mount Holyoke college, studying international affairs, I started to understand and give voice to a lot of things I was feeling -- words like feminist, third world, human rights etc -- concepts that were very much part of the lexicon of my women's college. It was a very exciting time for me; I became very politically involved, taking part in social causes. I did my senior thesis in India, on the prostitution of women. I spent a lot of my last year visiting red light areas and talking to prostitutes. It was an eye-opener for me, understanding the challenges and issues women faced in so many different contexts.

Then while I was doing my masters in Columbia, I became involved in this global movement against the trafficking of women, so when I moved to New York University (NYU) to get my law degree, I started this organisation called Sakhi for South Asian women. The Sakhi mandate was to work with battered South Asian women.

About my career: When I was at NYU, I used to read India Abroad, which would carry these little vignettes in it -- 'Woman dies in suspicious circumstances', 'Woman falls from the balcony' -- and I realised that there was actually a lot of violence occuring in our community and the victims had nowhere to go. So a bunch of us got together and started Sakhi, which is celebrating its 20th birthday this year. I don't know if I should use the word 'celebrating', because what are we celebrating exactly?

But since then I've been really involved with looking at women's issues in a human rights context. After law school, I worked with a law firm for a few years and managed to get a network of lawyers to represent battered women as well as take on immigration cases for them.

In 1996, I returned to India for awhile and joined the Human Rights Programme at the Ford Foundation, where a lot of my emphasis was on the rights of women, dalits, adivasis and other marginalised sections of society. Around that time, the question for me became, how do we take these issues to state? I mean, you can keep talking about these issues in small pockets of NGOs, but how do you make that conversation come alive for the larger public? That's the question that led me to the creation of Breakthrough.

While I was with the Ford Foundation, I began to explore the possibility of a music album, and I was lucky enough to team up with (lyricist) Joshi, (music composer) Shantanu Moitra and (singer) Shubha Mudgal. At the time, their big achievement was the album Ab ke Sawan, but they weren't as big as they are now. So we got together to explore how to address women's rights through music. The journey was amazing for me, because I came from a law and NGO background and suddenly found myself in the middle of these intensely creative and intelligent people. The experience was just amazing. I think for that one year I was on the biggest high of my life. So in the fall of 2000, we launched the music video Mann ke Manjeere, which became this huge hit. When we were working on it, we had no idea what was going to happen -- everyone told us we were crazy, there was no finance, people were refusing to get onboard. We were lucky to get Star TV to publicise it for us. But then, when it was finally made, the video was a huge hit! It featured actress Meeta Vashisht and won us a Screen Award for best music video; it also made it to the Top 10 Videos list. It was certainly a moment in time that was savoured by all of us.

Now, since I still had a full-time job at Ford, I made my way out and founded Breakthrough. At the time we had no resources, no organisation, nothing. Now when I see our latest campaign, Bell Bajao, which calls on men and boys to help end domestic violence, I look back on a very exciting journey. The kind of partnerships we've been able to forge and the kind of work we've been able to do at the grassroots and community level is great. Breakthrough has two offices, in India and the USA. Our mission is to use the media and popular culture to stir people's hearts and minds where human rights are concerned.

The whole idea is to make values of dignity, equality and justice a part of everyday living and to get people to understand that human rights are not only all about what is happening in Darfur, but also what is happening in your home -- it manifests in how you treat each other at home. We use whatever tools are available to us -- media, multimedia, video games, animation etc to reach a larger audience. In the US, our primary focus has been on issues faced by immigrants, especially after 9/11. Post the attacks, immigrants have faced a whole lot of challenges and discrimination. The systematic stripping of human rights of non-US citizens, particularly under the Bush administration, is a cause of grave concern.

Last year we created a video game called ICED. ICE -- which stands for Immigration, Customs and Enforcement -- is the arm of the US government that enforces immigration laws. So the name is a play on that. The ICE is responsible for a lot of the detentions and deportations that have been taking place. We worked with 100 high school kids and created this video game where you have five young characters, each with a different immigration status -- you get to pick one to become a US citizen, by getting through all these crazy laws that deny you the due process and either throw you in detention or get you deported. It's a great way for young people to understand all the constraints in immigration law and also for people to understand that's it's really not that easy after 9/11. This game was a huge hit, creating this enormous buzz and generating media coverage, leading to the ICE making official statements against Breakthrough, which was great, because we got so much more visibility.

The challenges I've faced along the way: The biggest one was having really ambitious dreams and trying to realise them. The dream to reach millions of people with a message and make a difference is not easy to realise. Creating public-private partnerships to move that agenda was particularly hard. Nobody wants to touch the issue of violence against women here, or immigration issues in the US. They are toxic issues!

So how do you maintain the integrity of what you're doing and still reach the scale you want to? Getting people on board to stand up for women's rights was really hard. For example we tried to find a corporate sponsor for Mann ke Manjeere -- and it was so hard. Once the album was out and such a big hit, everyone was like, "Oh, we should have..." but if you go back to them with a similar proposition, nothing's changed! It's only now that I've started to notice a slight change in mindsets.

What a regular day at work looks like now: When I'm in New York, I wake up at 6.30 am and walk my dog. Then I come back and do some yoga before sitting down with the New York Times. Then I have to call the India office before the end of their day -- the time difference between the two countries governs my day a lot. I usually spend 8 am to 9.30 am on the phone with India. And then my work day in New York starts at 10 am. I'm doing various things -- mostly meeting people for partnerships and things and figuring out new ways to work. Evenings are either about attending some event or chilling at home. I'm also very committed to my girlfriends -- we're a small group of women from my time at Sakhi, and we try and have dinner together at least once every two months. A lot of the time, by the time I get home it's morning in India, so I might end up being back on the phone! I spend three-four months in India every year.

Balancing work and your personal life: I have the sweetest, most wonderful spouse anyone could dream of. For him what's challenging is how much I travel, because I'm gone a lot, which can be hard on a relationship. I also have a pretty high visibility job, which is also hard for him to deal with.

I think when I was in India, working for the Ford Foundation between 1996 and 2000, it was the hardest time my marriage had ever seen. He left his job in NYU to be with me. And in India, the question 'What do you do' is always asked of the man. And the answer 'Well, I'm not working because I decided to come to India with my wife' isn't exactly the most well-received response. That took a real toll on our marriage -- we almost broke up under the strain of it! It's like, you're here on this expat job with the Ford Foundation -- you're hot sh**! And your husband, who has made this major decision to come with you, has to struggle to find his identity.

Fortunately, he's my best friend, and I think when you have that kind of friendship, you find a way to sort out stuff and work it through.

When we started Sakhi, he was always dragged along for the marches and helping us set up offices -- carrying and lifting heavy boxes -- the whole nine yards. For the first three years, Breakthrough was running out of our home in the US -- our dining table was the office. So he's had to constantly deal with all these people, mostly women, floating around in his private space. He was really happy when we moved our office to Manhattan (laughs).

Anothet thing is, I have to do a lot of socialising for my work -- going to public events, meeting people etc. My husband doesn't enjoy that. So we had to find a balance between me doing some stuff alone, some stuff that he has to attend with me (so that I don't spend the whole evening answering the question 'Where is your husband?') and stuff that we can do on our own, making time for just us. We've struggled with that -- with me getting pissed and saying, "You never come with me, I really need you to be there," and him saying, "There are only so many events I can attend where everyone wants to talk to you, and I'm just the side show."

But now we've found a good balance that works for us.

As for me-time, I'm a total gadget freak. I love my iPod and iPhone. I also love romance novels. I've recently downloaded 200 of them, and I just open them and read whenever I have a few free minutes (chuckles).

My future plans: The tenth year of Breakthrough is approaching, so we're analysing situations and checking how we can bring the human rights issue to hit home -- which is the aim of Breakthrough. I also want to write more. I'd like to find more spaces to write and talk -- I blog occasionally. My dream is actually to host a talk show either on the radio or TV -- but I don't know if that will ever happen!

Insiyah Vahanvaty