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September 2011

Inspiring Women: Mallika Dutt

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune of attending a keynote speech by Mallika Dutt, whom I had never heard before, and who heads a non-profit organization with the non-descript name of Breakthrough. She turned out to be one of the most inspiring women I have met in a very long time.

Dutt's Breakthrough "is a global human rights organization that uses the power of media, pop culture, and community mobilization to inspire people to take bold action for dignity, equality, and justice." (from the website). In her speech, Dutt gave insights into her career path, which led her to a JD degree from NYU Law School in 1989 and a Master's in International Affairs and South Asian Studies from Columbia University in 1996, which she pursued after she grew dissatisfied in her career as associate at a top law firm in New York City. She then joined the Ford Foundation and became instrumental in developing the foundation's South Asian initiatives with an emphasis on policy reform and the rights of disadvantaged communities. (You can find Dutt's full CV here.)

This led her to create Breakthrough in 2001. The goal of the organization is to inspire people to take action for social change by using tools of pop culture. She had this idea of creating a pop video to raise awareness of domestic violence in India, and in the keynote speech I attended she explained that the idea met a lot of resistance from naysayers who didn't believe it would have any sort of impact. But when the video was finally launched, it became a phenomenal success, winning the 2001 National Screen Award in India for best music video. It was also nominated for MTV's "Best Indipop music video" and reached 26 million households via satellite music distribution channels.

The song, named Mann ke Manjeere, tells the true story of Shameem Pathan, who left an abusive marriage and became a truck driver to support herself and her daughter. It was interpreted by a leading Indian female singer and written by a top lyricist. You can watch the video, with English subtitles, on YouTube here (during her keynote speech Dutt showed that video but with much better quality, and maybe there is a higher-quality video clip available somewhere on the Internet). I found the music to be really uplifting, even if there was no subtitles the first time I watched the video, at the keynote speech. Dutt is hopeful that the wide broadcasting of the video provided a starting point to discuss domestic violence in India.

Other music videos produced by Breakthrough, such as Babul, are not as upbeat but just as important to help spur a debate and ultimately change behavior on a large scale.

In 2009 Mallika Dutt received the American Courage Award for her human rights work. You can find a list of the awards she and her organization have received here. This was only possible through the determination of one woman who, over a decade ago, knew she had come up with a great idea even if no one at first wanted to help her make her dream a reality.

I've decided to nominate her as possible Lehigh Commencement speaker for 2013. If you're a member of the Lehigh University community and would like to support this choice, please nominate her too here. She was an inspiring speaker when I attended her keynote address, and graduating students would certainly relate to the path of adjustments that took her from law school to the world of non-profits and humanitarian activism. The use of pop culture tools for social change, of course, counts as bonus points.