When asked what her dreams are, 14-year-old Sunaina, who lives in a village in northern India, slipped into deep thought. After a few minutes, she said, “To get new clothes for Diwali,” referring to one of India’s biggest annual celebrations. “But what about a long-term dream,” she was prompted, “a wish you wake up to every day and want to achieve?” Another long silence, then Sunaina’s friends called her away. The question was never answered.
Back at the New Delhi office of the NGO Breakthrough India, President and CEO Sohini Bhattacharya was briefed on the encounter. “It is shocking how girls don’t have dreams and aspirations. Our society has stifled them so much,” she said.
Founded in 2000, Breakthrough India works to transform social norms and the cultures that enable them. Its goals are to empower women and young girls through education, to save them from child marriages and domestic violence, and to end gender-based sex selection and sexual harassment.
From the start, its approach has been iconoclastic: Indian-American human rights activist Mallika Dutt launched the organisation after her album and music video on women’s rights topped the Indian pop charts and won India’s 2001 National Screen Award for best music video. Suddenly, she knew that media, arts, pop culture and technology could be highly effective tools for advancing social justice.
The NGO now has offices in New Delhi and New York City, and operations in the north Indian states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. “We started off working with victims of domestic violence,” Bhattacharya explained. “Our first campaign was ‘Bell Bajao!’ (‘Ring the Bell!’), a series of TV ads designed to help people understand that violence is everyone’s business, and that by creating an interruption when you witness it [such as ringing a neighbour’s doorbell], you are helping out.” Since 2008, “Bell Bajao!” has reached more than 130 million people in India; in 2013, the award-winning campaign went global, with spots featuring such international celebrities as Sir Patrick Stewart and Michael Bolton.
Dr. Leena Sushant, Breakthrough India’s director of research, monitoring and evaluation, said that many women still do not see violence by husbands as a problem. “When you ask them, they casually say that it’s normal for their husband to slap them when they burn a roti [flat bread] or spend more than the month’s budget. It’s difficult to help women when they don’t realise they have a problem.”
The NGO has found that it helps to take a non-confrontational approach. “Media, theatre and music are our primary tools,” said Sushant. “Preaching never works, so we try to get the people to realise the problems themselves.” For example, Breakthrough has video vans that travel to cities and villages, engaging residents in games and street theater that draw attention to violence against women.
Over the years, Breakthrough has also taken on issues confronted by young girls. Education is the cornerstone of this work, reflecting the belief that change can be brought about only if attitudes are shaped early on. It now has partnerships with two states, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, to set up projects in more than 150 schools.
Research shows that 70 percent of girls living in villages in these two states drop out of school before age 16. One of the reasons is the lack of facilities in schools, such as clean and accessible toilets; another is that traveling to and from school can be dangerous. Mentalities also play a big role: “Girls have internalised the idea that while it is acceptable for their brothers to study as long as they want, they can get educated only up to a point and eventually have to get married,” Bhattacharya said. “Our primary aim has been to get them to believe that they have as much a right to an education as their male relatives or friends do.”
Sunanina, the teen queried about her dreams, is part of a Breakthrough India programme in Haryana. The NGO has not set a deadline for measuring the impact of the programme, but it has noted that girls in Sunanina’s village are now enrolling in schools along with boys.
One of the Haryana projects is the “Share your Story” initiative, whereby mothers tell their sons their personal stories of sexual harassment and even of catcalling on public roads or at work, so that young boys know harassment is not acceptable. “When we interact with boys in villages and in small towns, we find that many of them think it’s fun to harass girls. Through the experience of their own mothers, the boys understand that it’s not funny,” said Bhattacharya.
In order to ensure an inclusive approach, Breakthrough strives to bring schools, young boys and girls, their parents and village heads on board in each community. One example is “Ratri Chaupal,” a campaign that Breakthrough India plans to launch in villages across Haryana to engage and sensitise elders. In the evening, when people are back from work, community discussions will be organised to ask village elders how to end discrimination against women.
Funded primarily through donations and sponsors, Breakthrough India has attracted the support of international corporations (Google, Oracle) as well as NGOs (Unicef, Oak Foundation) and governments (Canada, the Netherlands). The organisation, which has already won or been nominated for more than two dozen prestigious media and humanitarian awards, got a major boost in 2016 when it was named a recipient of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship—an honor that included $1.25 million in support for efforts to scale its work and increase its impact.
Breakthrough is staffed with around 30 people, split between the US and India. While it does have the resources to tackle many issues, it does not have the power to address all concerns directly. But it can and does bring problems to the notice of government agencies, sometimes resulting in change for the better.