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Changing the narrative on Violence against Women in India

Breakthrough India is a women’s rights organisation, seeking to create a cultural shift to reject discrimination and violence against girls and women. It focuses on “opening doors, breaking barriers, and starting honest conversations about gender, violence and discrimination, with women, men, adolescents, youth, families and communities as units, frontline health workers, government officials, influencers etc.”

As gender-based violence is a taboo topic in India, Breakthrough uses authentic experiences and stories to break the stigma and mainstream the subject. To reach their large and diverse target audience in a language they can relate to, the organisation employs mediums they respond to – such as music, new media, and pop culture.

We spoke to Barsha Chakraborty, Deputy Director of Digital Programmes and Partnerships at Breakthrough, to learn more about their campaigning strategies.

Bell Bajao!

One of the first and most successful campaigns of Breakthrough India was ‘Bell Bajao!’ (“Ring the Bell”) launched in 2008. It was built on the idea of bystander intervention as a way to stop domestic violence.

Speaking on the campaign, Barsha said:

“Domestic violence is not a personal or a private matter. All of us are responsible to address violence. We started by establishing why bystander intervention is important. The media campaign focused on small actions we can take to intervene. For instance, in one of the advertisements, a man is fixing his bike when he hears a woman being beaten up. He rings the bell and when the door opens, he asks for a cup of milk. The message was that even a simple, non-confrontational action serves to interrupt the violence and show that someone is listening. It was a simple message, but it was extremely effective.”


Indeed, Bell Bajao’s award-winning series of Public Service Announcements (PSAs) have been viewed by over 130 million people. Inspired by true stories, the videos showed bystanders stepping up and ringing the bell to interrupt domestic violence in various scenarios. The campaign was translated to different languages and shown in many other countries. It was also adopted by the United Nations.

Barsha added:

“The campaign was a real hit. Now we have done research studies on bystander intervention, specifically looking at what makes people intervene, from an intersectional point of view. A cis-gender woman will feel more empowered to intervene than a transgender woman as it turns out that the person in danger might not even want the Trans woman’s help because of their identity. It is very complicated. We are looking at how we can understand and measure these behaviours.”

Violence Is Not Filmy

Another more recent campaign that has garnered a positive response is ‘Violence Is Not Filmy’, a campaign that pushes back against the normalisation of violence against women on screens.

Barsha said:

“We had two different types of audiences for this campaign. First, those who are part of the film and TV industry, because they are the ones creating this content. So we engaged with them through our campaign and understand why they are featuring violence against women in their content and if that can be changed.

“To this effect, we launched a talk show where filmmakers who generate violent content were invited by other more socially aware filmmakers to discuss the use of violence and the possible alternatives.”

We are focusing here not just on changing a particular film, or even a specific filmmaker, but on changing the wider social narrative about the acceptability of violence and, beyond, about the way men and women relate to each other. For this type of objective at the level of a whole society, we need a broad range of allies to in addition to filmmakers we also engaged with social media influencers.

In both cases, we understood that you cannot be prescriptive and tell people what to do. Anyway, CSOs are not the ones with the most authority, as people expect us to be “extremists” and are wary of our positions. So it is important to mobilise peers, and also to let people come up with their own analysis and solutions.

“The second target is the wider population, anybody who consumes the content, to make them aware of the harm that it causes. We urge viewers to be more critical while engaging with these films and TV series and even refrain from watching it.”

Breakthrough’s short-term policy objective is to get authorities to impose an on-screen statutory warning, to mainstream the narrative that this kind of content is not socially acceptable.

 Research comes first

Research lays the foundation for campaigns carried out by Breakthrough and Violence Is Not Filmy is one example. As part of the campaign, the organisation released a report titled ‘Reimagining Pop Culture’ which examines gender representation in popular culture and how it is consumed in urban/semi-urban parts of India. The research also explores how gender and violence are deployed as popular cultural tropes.

As Barsha explained:

“The research looks at how women’s stories are told in pop culture, particularly Bollywood. We used the findings and insights from the research to develop our communications strategy, messaging, and content.  The core element of our campaigns is to look towards a solution. Our focus is to build an alternative narrative. If we think that a specific scenario is problematic we ask ourselves what exactly needs to be shifted and what an alternative narrative would look like.”

Barsha added:

“We are doing a second phase of the pop culture study to understand why this type of content is being consumed. What do people find enjoyable about these films? What feeds into these films? What makes the audience watch and connect with such films? Can we tweak those parts? Can we make films non-violent or present the violence differently and still make these films entertaining?”


Reaching the audience

As mentioned earlier, Breakthrough India reaches diverse audiences.  Some of their campaigns are particularly targeted at youth and adolescents, while others target policymakers as well as the wider society.

Barsha highlighted:

“Our campaigns are very local, and we make sure they are relatable in India. This is another way we use our research – to explore messaging that is relatable as well as to find ‘faces’ (personalities) for our campaigns that speak to our people. Prior to launching a campaign, our research term conducts a baseline assessment to figure out key aspects. We ask ourselves: what are the major issues in the beneficiary communities? What are the struggles? What are the bottlenecks? Who are the stakeholders? What are the consumption patterns? What kind of intervention worked better before? Who are the other key players? How are they working? What worked, what did not work?”

Breakthrough India works primarily with rural communities in India. As such, the organisation uses a variety of methods and platforms to reach their audience.

Barsha explained:

“We have a very strong presence on digital media as well as on almost all social media platforms. We run consistent campaigns on these platforms. We use influencer engagements to reach our large ecosystem. We are very active on Instagram because one of our target audiences is youth. However, we are not paying much heed to Facebook, which is less popular with young audiences. We use Twitter to reach policymakers or international stakeholders when we speak on global issues. YouTube is used because we have a lot of video content and it is easier to share YouTube videos via WhatsApp, which is another tool we use to reach our audience. To reach more rural audiences, which may not have access to social media, we use ‘video vans’ with giant screens where we play our videos and films. These vans travel inside villages. Again, research plays an important role in determining what kind of content should be created for what platform. All our content is open source, so anybody can access and use it. We also do a lot of face-to-face communications with administrators and officials.”

Video vans used by Breakthrough India in its campaigning (source Breakthrough India Facebook)


Challenges and learnings

One of the main challenges that Breakthrough faces is the increasingly conservative policy environment in India. As many other similar organisations working in the space, Breakthrough has had to face tougher sanctions in the past few years.

Barsha said:

“Currently, any kind of content can be seen as anti-government in India. Therefore, we have to be very careful about what we put on social media. It is frustrating because around five years ago, we could be more outspoken and put out bolder content. Now, we have to be extremely non-confrontational.”

She added:

“But, on the positive side, we are now moving away from talking about women’s rights from the binary-perspective. We are very intentionally taking an intersectional approach to our work. Whether it is our research, our campaigns, or our stakeholders, we look at all these aspects from an intersectional lens. This has been an important learning and a shift in our approach.”