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Ringing the Bell

The Bell Bajao! campaign calls on boys and men to combat domestic violence against women.

Like many groundbreaking ideas, the Bell Bajao! initiative, which asks men to step up and “ring the bell” to counter domestic violence against women, was born out of frustration with old ways that weren’t working.

As a program officer for human rights and social justice at Ford Foundation in India, Mallika Dutt helped organize a number of conferences on combating violence and discrimination against women. But, she soon realized the message wasn’t really getting out.

“I would go to meetings and it would be the same people, over and over again—it was essentially ‘preaching to the choir,’ ” she says. “That led me to wonder about what might enable us to engage a much larger group of people, and also at a more personal level rather than at a policy level. There was an enormous gap between what I call the ‘rhetoric of law’ and the actual realities of women’s lives. So, I began to explore how we might close that gap and create a situation where the cultural norm was to treat women fairly.”

Dutt’s explorations ultimately led to an award-winning music album and video called “Mann ke Manjeeré: An Album of Women’s Dreams” and to the launch of the human rights organization, Breakthrough, with offices in New Delhi and New York. The album brought to the forefront the problem of domestic violence by celebrating a woman leaving an abusive marriage and becoming a truck driver.

In 2008, Breakthrough launched the innovative cultural and media campaign, Bell Bajao!, in India. The award-winning series of public service announcements, which show men and boys stepping up and “ringing the bell” to interrupt overheard domestic violence against women, has been viewed by more than 130 million people. Breakthrough also sent video vans through Indian cities and villages, which screened these announcements and involved people through games, street theater and other cultural tools to spread the message.

The tactics and messages from the Bell Bajao! campaign, which went global in 2013 as Ring the Bell, have been used in many other countries, including Canada, China, Pakistan and Vietnam, notes Dutt.

“What the Bell Bajao! campaign has done is bring the issue of violence against women into public dialogue, into the public eye,” says Dutt, who serves as the president and chief executive officer at Breakthrough.

“Bell Bajao! invites everyone to be part of the solution. Men have to be engaged and involved. In the past, most programs have focused on providing legal remedies to women who have been abused. Those are critical pieces, but we need to understand that we really are going to be able to shift cultural norms only if we work with men to challenge the idea of what it means to be a man and engage men in becoming part of the solution,” says Dutt.

Another Breakthrough campaign, #Askingforit, focuses on the role of bystanders, who usually ignore instances of sexual harassment and often blame the victimized woman. Breakthrough urges anyone witnessing sexual harassment to check in with the victim, confront or distract the harasser, summon the police, help the victim file a complaint and call upon others to intervene collectively. The campaign stresses that women are never #Askingforit.

Breakthrough seeks to make discrimination and violence against women and girls unacceptable everywhere, in all its forms, including domestic violence, sexual harassment, early marriage and gender-biased sex selection, says Dutt.

“These changes require challenging the power relationships between men and women,” she says. “It’s not that violence against women just happen by accident—there are underlying causes and there are people who benefit. If you have a situation where you keep one group of people down and empower another group, then you create benefits for one group. Men have better pay, own more of the resources and assets, and have more power in the corporate world. We have to acknowledge that before we can change it.”

Despite occasional setbacks, Dutt is optimistic about achieving the change.

“After working in this space for 30 years, I know there are now many more women who are standing up and saying ‘enough is enough,’ ” she says. “It requires an honest conversation with men to demonstrate that violence against women ends up hurting not just women but men as well, and the whole community. We hope that by framing it as: ‘What kind of world do you want to live in?,’ we will enable men to change harmful attitudes and behaviors, so all of us can have a better existence.”


Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.

Good to know Mallika Dutt's efforts for gender equality and justice. Surely, all sensitization for men is praise worthy. But fact remains that "educated" men and women still do not translate their awareness in actual life. My experience at grass root confirms that old habit die hard, the norms set at childhood and prevalent in society are difficult to break and lead to serious conflict if broken. So people choose the easy way- to follow the norm.
The basic problem is to break the set norms. People are willing to break the norms when it comes to earning money for women but not when it comes to domesticity.

Submitted by Asha Mukherjee