'Pop culture a powerful tool in human rights advocacy'

'Pop culture a powerful tool in human rights advocacy'

Mallika Dutt

It began 10 years ago as an experiment of using media and popular culture to advance the cause of human rights. The very first effort, in the form of the album and music video on women’s rights, ‘Mann Ke Manjeere’, was an astounding success with album staying in the top 10 for six months on MTV.

Since then, Breakthrough has emerged as a potent force using popular culture to bring attention on domestic violence, women & HIV/AIDS, detention and deportation, immigrant rights and other crucial rights issues. Breakthrough also pioneered the unique ‘Bell Bajao!’ campaign that seeks to bring human rights issues right into individual homes. Mallika Dutt, the US-based brain behind Breakthrough, talks to Utpal Borpujari of Deccan Herald on the completion of 10 years of this unique approach towards human rights:

How did Breakthrough take birth?

I have been a human rights activist for the last 25 years, but always felt that the language used often does not reach people. One of the problems of the progressive movement is that you tend to speak to your own allies. I wanted to reach to more than the same 500 people in the NGO circuit.  About 10 years ago, I thought of using mainstream strategies to reach to larger audiences, engaging different people in conversation and really touch people’s lives. I started to explore the use of pop culture with the production of ‘Mann ke Manjeere’, the first music album and music video I did on domestic violence when I was living in India. The album attracted a huge amount of media attention. And that was the beginning of Breakthrough.

What have been its achievements in the decade of its existence?

It is extremely gratifying that in 10 years, we have become a global leader in advancing human rights through media and popular culture. Our campaigns have reached millions through amazing partnerships ranging from community-based groups to the entertainment industry. Hundreds of groups around the world are using Breakthrough products to advocate for human rights in local communities. We have also won many awards and been written about in innumerable dissertations and academic articles. But the most valuable outcome is the hundreds of people from marginalised groups like women and migrants, who write to or call us to say how important it is for their families and their communities that we bring these issues into mainstream public dialogue and encourage everyone to get involved in finding solutions.

What are the focus areas of Breakthrough?

It recognises that promoting human rights is essentially about changing how people relate to each other and their environment. Our focus is, therefore, to end violence and discrimination against marginalised communities, including women, migrants, people living with HIV/AIDS, and ethnic, sexual, and religious minorities. Since 9/11, our work in the US has highlighted the lack of due process in immigration policy, specifically around deportation and detention laws. In India, our work to stop violence against women has most recently focused on involving men and boys in the fight to end domestic violence.

How much do you think use of popular culture and media can actually help in advocacy?

The whole reason Breakthrough exists is to take the conversation about human rights beyond the usual suspects. Media and pop culture are powerful media to reach lots of people, and to do so in a creative and effective way. By creating a pop song or a videogame, you are able to take issues into the mainstream public sphere in a different way than a conference or protest can. You can reach people in their day-to-day surroundings and that is extremely powerful in changing hearts and minds. At the same time, Breakthrough strongly believes that to truly change public discourse, you need to build on the media buzz by penetrating at the community level. All our media campaigns are accompanied by curriculum and we do both online and offline human rights education and community mobilisation.The ‘Bell Bajao!’ campaign received tremendous response.

How was it conceived, what has it achieved?

It is a continuation of our efforts to change attitudes and make people take responsibility in order to end violence against women. Most importantly, the campaign involves men and boys in stopping domestic violence. Since our launch in September 2008, Bell Bajao! has reached more than 120 million people through TV, radio and print advertisements. Thousands of young men and women, trained by Breakthrough, have taken Bell Bajao! into homes, schools, work places, and community centres. They conduct performances, puppet shows and workshops at street corners, buses, train stations and shopping malls and have one simple message — ending domestic violence is everyone’s responsibility. And the message seems to be getting through.

Which geographic areas does Breakthrough focus on?

We work in India and the US, but our campaigns have a very global reach. When ‘Mann ke Manjeere’ was launched, we received letters from around the world requesting copies and we ended up translating the music video into English, Spanish and French. Our online video game on immigration, ICED (I Can End Deportation), has received visitors from more than 160 countries. In India, we focus our grassroots community mobilisation work in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Delhi.

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